Wasn’t it Sartre who said “Hell is other people’s workout music?”
I know, it didn’t sound quite right to me, either, but I was having trouble concentrating as I looked around Electric Lemon, the restaurant on the 24th floor of the Equinox Hotel in Hudson Yards.
As you probably guessed, the Equinox Hotel is owned by the Equinox gym people, although they want you to think of them as more than that. These days they are also “fitness-tourism” people, with whom you can book a mountain-climbing trek, a surfing expedition or, if that sounds a little too close to nature, a stay inside a 1,000-foot Manhattan tower at the first of what Equinox promises will one day be a constellation of 75 hotels around the world.
Rooms start at $700, which seems like a lot of money for a night in a part of town where some New Yorkers won’t go during the day. But it does get you access to a spa, three kinds of pools, a herd of SoulCycles and a fitness center, or what I would call a gym.
As of August, the hotel also has Electric Lemon. What made me think of that quote by Sartre, or whomever, was the music at the restaurant, which had a fast, insistent, mechanical beat. It sounded a little like the music you hear in those hotels with earth-toned lobbies and bars that call every drink on the menu a “signature cocktail,” but that music has more of an “oontz oontz oontz” thing going on, while the Electric Lemon playlist has a definite “feel the burn” flavor.
The music isn’t bone-pulverizingly loud, but it’s dopey enough to become one of the factors that helps put Electric Lemon in the odd category of good restaurants where you probably won’t want to eat. The restaurant is run by the restaurateur Stephen Starr’s company, and as you already know if you’ve been to Le Coucou or Upland (to name two out of about three dozen Starr places), he knows how to find the right pieces and put them all together.
That’s what he does at Electric Lemon, where he seems to understand that many customers will not self-identify as fitness tourists, and that even those who do might be in the mood, after hopping off the treadmill, for a burger and a glass of pinot noir. But it’s an uphill battle; the space seems to fight the restaurant that’s trying to live inside it.
There is a reasonably big wine list compiled by Natascha Patterer, the beverage manager. If she was daunted by the task of pairing bottles with cardio equipment, she doesn’t let it show. She has corralled familiar names and styles, a lot of them from France, along with a few mystery guests.
There are even a handful of bottles for less than $50. This is classic Stephen Starr anti-snobbism, and it’s a refreshing change from the lists of those sommeliers who spend months trying to get a single bottle from some vigneron who doesn’t have a phone and rides a donkey to work.
As far as cocktails go, medical authorities have long debated whether a vigorous workout should be followed by a single, perfect martini or a whole row of them. The Equinox Hotel website seems to endorse the latter view, encouraging patrons to “stop in throughout the day” for “a high-intensity series of martinis.” The last time I had a high-intensity series of martinis it was followed by a high-intensity nap, so I passed.
I can, however, tell you that Electric Lemon’s bartenders shake up an eye-opening tall drink called a Bucks Bunny out of carrot juice, ginger and Armagnac, a combination that in other hands is likely to lead to explosions. If that sounds like more than you can handle, the website promises that “an adaptogenic superfood latte” is available.
There’s also a tightly coiled mezcal number called “Kyle Knall, Y’all.” The name does not evoke Oaxaca, but it does evoke Kyle Knall, Electric Lemon’s chef. At his last restaurant, a likable, bourbon-scented spot called Maysville, Mr. Knall mined a Southern vein. In my memory, a lot of the food there was brown, or maybe it just seems that way in contrast with the psychedelic colors he slings around at Electric Lemon. Carrot diamonds jut out of a deep green cilantro-lime marinade for razor clams; sunny yellow broccoli flowers decorate a crushed-potato flatbread covered with grilled broccolini and a young sheep’s milk cheese. Mr. Knall paints his plates with radishes, beets, gooseberries, cherry tomatoes and a garden’s worth of leaves, and the cheerful palette can put you in a good mood before you’ve taken the first bite.
The flavors are vibrant, too. Mr. Knall seems to have tweaked the dials so that every dish has some acidity or juiciness or herbal freshness, and nothing is especially fatty, either, which seems to be the extent of the kitchen’s gestures toward healthy eating. The purple juices of roasted grapes fall over the sweet, scarlet threads of pickled ají dulci peppers and heart-shaped mint leaves that decorate a plate of pan-roasted scallops.
Small flying saucers of ravioli are stuffed with ground duck. You can even taste the crunchy, golden skin, although you can’t feel it, because the filling is completely tender. It’s delicious, but the flavor is very wintry and heavy until you hit one of the disks of crisp raw apple tossed with lemon verbena, and then everything lightens up.
The kitchen is very good, but it isn’t perfect. One night the halibut main course was moderately overcooked and my chicken was seriously dry and splintery.
Kelly Nam’s desserts are more modern-leaning than the rest of the food, and sometimes more than is good for them. There’s a very strange one called the Chocolate Moon Rock that looks like cold lentils and carrots and tastes like an Aero bar. A less strange one that plays with lemon in different forms is called the Electric Lemon Curd. It’s perky enough to embody the whole menu on a plate.
But Electric Lemon’s space takes any spikes of energy the food might cause and flattens them. It’s an awkward, narrow area, and while the designers at the Rockwell Group have successfully made a lounge area that would be ideal for a low-key hotel in Las Vegas, the dining room seems to get away from them entirely. It’s just a group of tables next to the elevator bank; if the restaurant were an office, this would be the team-building area, and nobody would use it.
On one wall is a warped, wavy circus mirror that makes the room look as if it’s melting. Meanwhile you’re listening to a workout playlist that’s probably not yours, or Sartre’s, either. Maybe the answer is to wear earbuds. Conversation would be tough, but at least it would complete the gym experience.