First Impressions: Blue Ribbon Federal Grill

Back story: When chef Wylie Dufresne pulled out of opening a restaurant inside the new AKA Wall Street extended-stay hotel at William Street and Maiden Lane, Bruce and Eric Bromberg’s Blue Ribbon group stepped in. Blue Ribbon has grown mightily from its Soho roots—with myriad restaurants, bars, even bowling alleys—and Blue Ribbon Federal Grill is its fanciest establishment so far.

The atmosphere: In Blue Ribbon style, the Federal Grill is clean and simple; the industrial-style columns and fanciful light fixtures keep the room from being generic. The emphasis is mainly on the picture windows facing Louise Nevelson Plaza—such openness is rare in this neighborhood, and the light at lunch is splendid—and because the restaurant is a half-dozen steps above street level, you feel pleasantly removed from the hubbub below. The 12-seat bar looks good for dining, either alone (important for those extended-stay guests) or with a companion.

The menu: The lunch and dinner menus (below, respectively) have significant overlap, except they’re arranged differently. The lunch menu goes the standard appetizers-and-entrées route, while the dinner menu organizes the dishes by “Pasture,” “Sea,” and “Field,” with price the only way to gauge the size. At the low end (a $14 green salad and an $18 burger at dinner), the restaurant is accessible, but prices escalate. And the higher the prices—topping out at a $54 veal chop and $58 sole Meunière—the higher the expectations regarding the rest of the experience.

Gold star: I went twice, for lunch and for dinner. At lunch, the restaurant stood on firm ground: sharp service, appealing room, satisfying food. The farro and shrimp dish was more substantial that it appears here; the fried chicken sandwich is a messy, decadent treat; and the $9 side of perfectly grilled asparagus was a reasonable value. (Can’t remember where, but I recently paid $14 for five stalks.)

Room for improvement: Dinner was wobblier. Without the light pouring in, the atmosphere loses some pizzazz, and aside from a roasted heart of palm appetizer, the cooking wasn’t very memorable. Portions were meager enough that we had to order dessert, and that’s when the service—so refreshingly professional that I had remarked to Adam about it—went on the fritz. Our server dropped off the menus and disappeared, another server eventually stepped in to take our order, and the desserts got stalled somewhere for long enough that a manager appeared to assure us that they’d show up in “two and a half minutes.” (It was more like five.) Worse, as we were about to leave, our original server recited the two dessert specials—news to us—to the patrons at the next table. You can’t get away with that loosey-goosey vibe at these prices the way you could at, say, the defunct Blue Ribbon Bakery. The restaurant might simply need time to grow into its aspirations.

Anything else? Kudos for the easiest to read vacant-or-occupied restroom indicators I’ve ever seen in a restaurant; you don’t have to bend over and peer at it to figure out what it says, risking an awkward moment if someone exits at the same time.

Contact: Blue Ribbon Federal Grill is inside the AKA Wall Street hotel at 84 William (at Maiden Lane); 212-337-0404; blueribbonrestaurants.com.

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