In Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel “Casino Royale,” a suave agent of international espionage named James Bond orders a very specific martini: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
In 1957, the USSR launched the first satellite to orbit the Earth, a marvel they called Sputnik. The following year, a newly minted U.S. agency called NASA responded with a program to put an American in space and, by the heady early years of the 1960s, they did exactly that.
The Mercury is, more than any new restaurant I can recall visiting recently, a period piece of a very specific vintage. The light fixtures are of an atomic-age style sometimes called “Sputnik” in the trade. The dining room is so finely attuned to low, clean lines and Danish teak that it could be a mid-century modern showroom.
The Merc’s Martini is a variation on 007’s, improved with Cocchi Americano, orange bitters, a lemon expression and an olive. There’s even a cigarette machine, though it has been retooled to vend $5 pieces of art.
And the menu, while containing a fair number of options, is unmistakably designed around a single, vintage dish: prime rib. Many supporting players — shrimp cocktail, crab Louie salad, creamed spinach au gratin — are what I imagine I might have ordered at Lawry’s in Beverly Hills back when cigarette machines still dispensed cigarettes.
The set design here is so complete that it can be intoxicating. At a recent Monday lunch, I was so enthralled by the room — the way light filtered in from a wall of windows, the gorgeous bookshelves that envelop the kitchen’s pass — that I briefly entertained the ludicrous idea of pulling a Don Draper four-martini lunch and sleeping off the rest of the day. I sensibly settled on a single drink — a flawless scofflaw — and still needed the afternoon nap, anyway.
But, let’s turn our attention to the meat of the matter. Prime rib is among the most celebrated cuts of beef for good reason. It contains the very tender eye of the rib and the luxuriously rich and fatty spinalis dorsi as they run across several ribs of the cow’s midsection.
When cooked properly, which is to say at a very low temperature for a long time, the best result is just like the one I had at the Mercury’s bar on a recent weeknight. Aside from a thin, browned, salty edge, the meat was a bright, rosy pink. The ample fat had rendered so well that each bite appeared to be wet with it. The rich strands of the spinalis fell apart at the touch of my fork. I hardly needed the accompanying boats of au jus and horseradish cream, though they were nice, too.
If only prime rib were always like that. I tend to get my prime rib fix more often at family dinners than restaurants, because the practical obligations of a restaurant — holding meats at temperature for a long time so they can be delivered fairly quickly — aren’t ideal for flawless prime rib. Places that do it consistently well tend to have some sort of theatrical technique, like the famous tableside carving carts at Lawry’s, or they just douse the meat in enough au jus that you don’t notice it has dried out while waiting for your order.
Unfortunately, my most expensive meal at the Mercury was also the most disappointing one. I wanted to fully embrace the era, so we ordered all of the classic stuff: shrimp cocktail and crab Louie, prime rib and lobster tail, french fries and creamed spinach.
Oh, sure, it was fun. That Merc’s Martini was delivered in a rocks glass with a block of ice so clear and pure that I thought for a moment I was being served a 12-ounce cocktail. The lobster tail was so rich with butter that it burst. But the cold shrimp were a bit rubbery, the spinach had broken from the cream and sat in a sad pool of it, the fries were too soft to be anything special, and, well, then there was the prime rib.
When it arrived, the cut looked pink and rosy as could be, but I was dismayed to find the meat dry, not the tender, wet cut of my dreams. None of this (aside from maybe the spinach) was quite “send it back to the kitchen” bad, but it lacked the finesse that makes a $200 bill for two go down easy. By the end of the meal, I felt a lot like I do when I finish reading a James Bond novel: entertained, but in desperate need of subtlety.
The safest bet at the Mercury is the prime rib sandwich served at lunch. Since it comes on crunchy but tender French bread and melting, paper-thin rings of onion, you’ll never know whether the ribbons of rich beef are a bit dry or not. Or, at least, I didn’t, because I couldn’t resist dunking it again and again into the rich au jus and slathering on smear after smear of horseradish cream.
By the time you finish the gargantuan portion, you’ll look around and not know what year it is anymore.