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One of the seminal moments in a career at the bar is attainment of partner’s stripes. It signals the crowning recognition of intellect, effort and skill, and is the open door to a bright future. As such, partnership is deserving of celebration on a grand scale. There is an awesome array of great restaurants in New York, where depth of quality in every kind of food is unmatched in the world. In choosing a special site to hail a new partner, there are very specific requisites. It must have superb food, remarkable wines and other beverages, meticulous service, and a truly felicitous setting where conversation may flourish. In short, it must be as memorable as the moment being marked. Here are restaurants where magic may be made. Readers of last year’s New Partners special section may recognize two, but significant chef changes make them even more exciting and apt for a terrific dining experience. ATLAS As 2001 begins, Atlas is charted in the very top tier of Manhattan’s dining destinations, winning successive ratings of 3 1/2 stars (Crain’s New York Business), 3 stars ( The New York Times) and a 25 in the Zagat New York Survey. The new chef, London-born Paul Liebrandt, is cooking up an adventurous storm, making everyone aware that Alain Ducasse isn’t Central Park South’s only potent potboiler. Meantime, Atlas remains a calm, cozy, comfortable and cosseted retreat. It has just 62 pleasing seats — its owners, the Hemmerdinger family, personally tested more than 80 chairs to find the best — generously deployed under flattering lighting. Audio engineers fine-tuned sound levels in the Larry Bogdanow-designed restaurant, rich in warm woods and leather. In the rear of the restaurant is a set-aside sanctum for six, adjacent to glass-faced wine cases, perfect for a small smash. You may wish to consult Atlas managing partner James Danos Jr., when planning the partnership feast. Danos, an attorney-turned-White House assistant-turned-chef-turned-restaurant manager, is a fascinating gentleman from New Orleans. He wears the uniform of an Atlas waiter, believing accurately that he gets better feedback from the clientele. Because he is a chef himself, he provides patrons exceptionally detailed information on chef Liebrandt’s original dishes. James Danos is not the only multi-faceted Atlas staffer. Wine Director Benjamin Breen is a native Australian concert violinist whose vinous work at vaunted Veritas prepared him to assemble the global roster of 270 wines for Atlas. Pastry chef Natalia Andalo is an industrial artist/designer from Argentina who helped open Tabla. Chef Liebrandt’s approach to his challenge is customer-driven and then some. “People come to a restaurant with a dream,” he says, “and it’s the restaurant’s job to make it come true.” He refers to his food as “simple, graphic, sexy and feminine.” It is also done without butter and highlighted by layer upon layer of complementary flavors and wide-ranging textures and tastes. Simply reading the menu can be startling. The idea of smoked sea eel with watermelon and crystallized violets seems bizarre, but darned if it doesn’t harmonize wonderfully. Tian of crab with quince confit, pink grapefruit jelly and caviar is a splendid starter, as are all soups from this kitchen. A blend of intensely green parsley puree with licorice — yes, licorice — is a revelation with two miniature salt cod brandades on the side. Imagine foie gras raviolo topped with foie gras foam and you have the sultry little extra dish that pops up between courses here. Another intermezzo is fresh wasabi sorbet with green apples and sea salt. Entrees are uniformly pleasing to the eye and engaging novelties to the palate. Pomegranate sauerkraut and celeriac puree join chicken breast, which is first poached, then lightly grilled. Saffron-rich red pepper stew plays off roasted wild striped bass, and lamb is presented with braised artichokes, parsley pesto and a coffee-cinnamon jus. Less esoteric is beef filet with roasted carrots and horseradish puree. Seasonal seafood and game dishes may obviate some of these items. Ripe and ready cheeses are offered as an alternative or addition to dessert. Cheeses are presented with quince paste and tiny chickpea flour breadsticks. Desserts are as refreshingly rich around the edges, as in buttery crusts, as they are light in sum. Quince tart with star anise panna cotta riding sidecar is a lovely accomplishment, and a tian of ricotta with caramel-cider sauce rings the right bell, too. Well-made custards and puddings always tell me a lot about a pastry chef. Patissier Andalo fields a trio of small yummies — chocolate-cardamom, pumpkin and ginger creme brul�e. Yes! Atlas guests experience the fruits of an uncommonly high level of dedication to the trinity of food, service and ambiance. Just right for the new partner. ATLAS, 40 Central Park South, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. (212) 759-9191. BAYARD’S Another sea change in the kitchen brings new focus to one of the great beauties of New York’s financial district, Bayard’s at India House. If you want to feel you are part of the Establishment, this is the place. Captains of international commerce and banking gather at the private India House club for lunch, as they have for a century. At dinner, the stately dining rooms with welcoming fireplace casting a golden glow over priceless nautical artifacts may be your grazing ground. And how fine it is! I’ve had great respect for this creation of owner Peter Poulakakos and his father Harry since they directed its splendid restoration two years ago. Now, with famed chef Eberhard Muller as a partner, Bayard’s is making big waves. Chef Muller directed the kitchen of Lutece after the retirement of Andre Soltner. Prior to that, he was right-hand man to the late Gilbert LeCoze in launching and levitating Le Bernardin. If anything, he has honed his skills and added to his ingredient pool the freshest crops from his own farm on Long Island. If Atlas showcases a wondrous whirlpool of culinary creativity, the cuisine of chef Muller at Bayard’s is the essence of elegant simplicity, where each element of a dish speaks with firm authority. Before or in synchrony with getting into the new menus, carefully review the wine list. Harry Poulakakos of the popular Harry’s restaurants — Harry’s at Hanover Square is adjacent to India House — has been amassing great wines for 35 years. His collection of more than 100,000 bottles is one of New York’s treasures, priced well under almost any other source. Harry, Peter or Bayard’s attentive yet discreet staffers will guide you well in navigating this honor roll of more than 700 choices. Among appetizers, I’ve never had better tuna tartare than Bayard’s, with a quail egg in its center and bold flavor notes of mint, cilantro and sesame to caress the taste buds. There is not the faintest hint of fishiness in the dish. Delicate yet lush foie gras is wrapped with black truffles in a plump package of Savoy cabbage, and thin smoked slices of cod are anointed with white truffle oil and lemon juice. Fisher Island oysters are served warm with Champagne sauce and a dab of Osetra caviar. There are light but lively salads of lobster, crab, chanterelles and frisee. Bayard’s entrees are evenly divided between seafood and land-based centerpieces. Two of my favorites are saut�ed turbotin presented with black truffle vinaigrette and a warm truffled slaw, and tender medallions of veal with leek puree, caramelized leeks and truffle sauce. Dover sole shines in a boned-at-tableside show, then is drizzled with lemon and brown butter and plated with leaf spinach. Artichoke, carrots and a celery and saffron ragout accompany golden-edged, seared red snapper. Halibut is steamed in an assertive tarragon-vegetable broth. Meat mavens will thrill to a dry, aged New York strip steak with bordelaise sauce, creamed spinach, fingerling potatoes and cippolini onions. Desserts are imaginative compositions that avoid heaviness. Moroccan-style citrus soup with Lillet granite is as light as could be, and Bayard’s kitchen prepares five souffles. Choose from lemon, coffee, raspberry, chocolate and Grand Marnier. A visit to Bayard’s is not complete without a leisurely inspection of the artifact-rich rooms upstairs and down. Mr. Poulakakos or one of the accommodating staff will point out highlights of the exhibited ships’ models, paintings, century-old trade goods, and notable ship’s figurehead. BAYARD’S, One Hanover Square. (212) 514-9454. LE CIRQUE 2000 When in doubt, let it out! For really big deal dining, nobody does it better than Sirio Maccioni’s top team at Le Cirque 2000. Portal-to-portal service at the world dining mecca can involve at least a dozen people from boss to bus. One cannot err in booking a celebratory feast at the stately yet lively dining rooms in The Palace Hotel. Again, in arranging the date, spell out the nature of the event, and the Le Cirque folk will pounce on an opportunity to make it a singular happening. It’s always fun to rub elbows with celebrities from all walks of life, and Le Cirque 2000 has the most star-studded cast of customers of any restaurant in America. Bar none. The reason they are there is the extraordinary character of the food, service and surroundings. What continues to make Le Cirque 2000 the hallmark for great upscale dining is Maccioni’s unflagging devotion to the principle of doing whatever it takes to satisfy and please his guests. We are still benefiting from seasonality of sensationally fragrant white truffles from Alba in Italy’s Piedmont region. Its long relationship with top suppliers enables Le Cirque to obtain the primest of the prime “diamonds of the earth.” And the $3 million kitchen produces a wide range of platforms on which to grate the formidable fungi. Polenta, pasta, risotto, baked potato, salads, entrees — all attain ethereal essence from shaved white truffles falling like snowflakes. The kitchen, under new executive chef Pierre Schaedelin, who succeeded Sottha Khunn as of Jan. 15, carefully honors its past in replicating the many Le Cirque classic dishes, from simple grills to complex and nuanced items. I love the breaded, golden Flounder Le Cirque, about as straightforward as you could get. It may or may not appear on the menu, but this is the home of pasta primavera as well as launch pad for appreciation in America of creme brul�e. Especially when informed of a special moment being feted, the pastry team will create a series of dramatic sweets that will bowl over your table, and make it the entertainment and envy of those around you. The restaurant’s vast wine list is presided over by Ralph Hersom, a gifted oenophile who works closely with patrons to match bottles dish-by-dish, or just according to their preferences. There are two large dining rooms, one with banquettes in deep blue, the other in red and gold. Blue gets the nod for formal, red and gold for festive. Both will showcase meals for the memory bank. LE CIRQUE 2000, The New York Palace Hotel, 455 Madison Avenue. (212) 303-7788. ROTHMANN’S STEAKHOUSE & GRILL Our passion for prime beef has triggered an avalanche of steak house openings in Manhattan. Many are multi-million-dollar establishments with hundreds of seats, hefty cocktails and lengthy wine lists, and the expected roster of USDA Prime steaks and chops, grilled fish, side dishes and hyper-calorie desserts. For a new partner, we want more. Perhaps a little French twist on the menu at Strip House, surprising comfort and diversity at Nick & Stef’S in Madison Square Garden, or the overarching good looks, ease, service and wine possibilities of Rothmann’s. Rothmann’s is a polished performer with ideal midtown location, a strikingly handsome, warm and woody contemporary environment, and intelligent management. The 20th establishment of Long Island’s premier restaurateur, Anthony Scotto, Rothmann’s is visually the most feminine of the new meat marts, not a bad thing for a mixed crowd. Its chef is Robert Dickert, the great-nephew of Peter Luger, no small name in beefdom. General manager Pat Felitti ran Morton’s of Chicago downtown with distinction, and is the man in whose ear to drop the nature of the planned celebration. Cocktails rise to the 10-ounce level here, and the number of wines surpasses 500. A sommelier, Juan Carlos Restrepo, is a discreet and effective matchmaker of food and wine. I’ve spotted some of Italy’s most famed winemakers among the Rothmann’s patrons. Rothmann’s goes the extra mile, from a warm and varied breadbasket, the first hint of a steakhouse kitchen disposition, to quality takes on pies and the ever-present, runny-centered chocolate dessert. You may start with a service of caviar by the ounce, or specialties such as Oysters Bienville, a creamy crab and shrimp medley served in oyster shells and smothered with mozzarella. Lobster or jumbo lump crabmeat cocktails are appetite-accelerants, and there are other hot beginnings such as sesame-crusted tuna, clams casino and fried calamari. The heart of the matter at Rothmann’s is steak, and lusty Porterhouse cuts come for two, three or four people. Sirloins are full of juicy goodness, filets splendid, and both cuts are available in more modest size, 14 and 12 ounces, respectively. A roasted pork loin chop, served with Cajun sauerkraut, is perhaps the best piece of pork I’ve experienced in a restaurant anywhere. There are several “pasta-bilities,” both featuring seafood, as well as other marine options. Side dishes, essential to rounding out a major meal at a steakhouse, are generous and can be ordered in assortments of fry-ups, or individually. The savvy staff of this smart newcomer are more than willing to help structure a feast, and execute it with style and finesse. ROTHMANN’S, 3 E. 54th Street. (212) 319-5500. SEA GRILL There is no better time than the present to discover the newly redesigned Sea Grill, one of the most underappreciated of Manhattan’s over-achieving restaurants. Too many people think that because it is in the city’s epicenter, looking out on the Rockefeller Center ice rink, that it is merely a tourist attraction. They could not be more wrong. Sea Grill is great because it’s in the right place and winter is prime time to enjoy the elaborate and amusing skating “show” taking place on the other side of the glass wall while dining on the superbly prepared seafood of chef Ed Brown. What a wonderful slice of New York life is captured in the stumbling of tots, the romance on blades of teens, and the togetherness of family skating. At any given hour, there is usually an adept skater out there, jumping and twirling. World-renowned designer Adam Tihany has opened up the dining room, while playing with nautical color tones. He pumped up the marine motif and married the interior most gracefully to the vibrant panorama on the other side of the glass. SeaGrill is usually packed out for lunch, but — amazingly — has available tables after dark, when views are the best. More than a few of my most totally pleasing dinners have played out under the caring attention of SeaGrill’s seasoned staff. They anticipate, and deliver. It might be chef Brown’s portobello fries, first-rate finger food for cocktail time. Another “side” dish that sometimes merits yanking into first and front position is the luscious potato chips fried in goose fat. Brown, hailed in the December Gourmet magazine as “dean of American fish cooks,” supervises a spirited culinary brigade that entices early with the likes of salmon and tuna tartare, and a suave, savory shellfish chowder. Crab cakes are as good as they get, in either appetizer or main course portion. In rethinking SeaGrill’s menu to go with its new look, the chef has harnessed la plancha cooking, a griddle format that produces even, gentle heat, creating a light crust on the outside of fish while leaving the interior moist and tender. La plancha-cooked fish are often identified on the menu by date, port, and ship that landed them. Other dishes are driven by what is freshest in the marketplace, and always sing with simplicity and harmony, as in a sweet pea emulsion for salmon. There is consideration for landlubbers at SeaGrill, in chicken, meat and pasta alternatives. Pastry chef Matthias Scaglia is full of fun, making tiny ice cream cones, or an artist’s palette of colorful sorbets. That’s in addition to mile-high chocolate cake, key lime pie, peanut butter and banana confections and other eye candy. The largely American wine list is not as large as our other celebratory nominees, but covers all the bases with room to spare. SEA GRILL, Rockefeller Plaza, 9 West 49th Street. (212) 332-7610.

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