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New York's New Wave

Restaurant openings continue unabated in every neighborhood

John Mariani
Posted: March 24, 2004

Wylie Dufresne showcases his talent at wd-50 with dishes like lamb with goat's cheese, arugula sauce and hibiscus-date puree.
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Try as I might to get to every exciting new restaurant in New York, I'm always six behind in a city whose motto seems to be, "Show me somethin' I ain't seen before."

Already this year I've seen the opening of Mario Batali's Otto Enoteca Pizzeria; Jean-Georges Vongerichten's 66; Keith (Balthazar, Pastis) McNally's Schiller's Liquor Bar; Marcus Samuelsson's Riingo; and opera star Placido Domingo's Pampano. Not to mention Rocco DiSpirito's TV-reality-show-restaurant Rocco's on 22nd, which is not worth a second mention. Every one of them is jammed. Coming soon is Per Se, an offshoot of Thomas Keller's French Laundry; a branch of Vongerichten's Las Vegas steak house Prime; and a brasserie by chef manqué Gray Kunz, to name just three of the marquee names coming to the new Time-Warner skyscraper at Columbus Circle.

Of the scores of restaurants opened this past year, the most buzz-worthy include a few that are controversial. Foremost of these is wd-50, star chef Wylie Dufresne's new restaurant at 50 Clinton St. on the Lower East Side. This once grungy, dicey neighborhood has been transformed in part by the vitality and activity brought by Dufresne's former restaurant, 71 Clinton Fresh Food, and those that followed.

The tiny 71 Clinton won raves for Dufresne's elegantly seductive, simple cuisine, sprung from a kitchen the size of a phone booth, so Dufresne's move uptown (by one block) to larger quarters for wd-50 was inevitable. The restaurant has a huge open kitchen and five times 71's seating, with wooden tables, lighting fixtures seemingly plucked from The Jetsons, and a wall decoration that looks like a dusty day on Jupiter.

Dufresne is nothing if not eclectic in his cooking, rethinking every ingredient on every plate, which results in both sublime unions and awkwardly arranged marriages. Of the former, his butternut squash-tamarind soup with a "couscous" of shredded scallops and a small lozenge of crisp lemon "paper" is a triumph of vegetal and sweet-and-sour components. Squid linguine with Cavaillon melon and serrano ham makes you wonder why no one's ever thought of the match before. An excellent loin of lamb comes with grated aged goat's cheese, an intensely bitter arugula sauce and a hibiscus-date puree. Only when all these seemingly disparate elements are combined in one forkful does Dufresne's brilliance kick in.

Then there are the ... odder dishes, such as a terrine of foie gras layered with white anchovies, tarragon and tiny cocoa beans, which struck me as gastronomically chaotic: The anchovies make the foie gras taste fishy and the cocoa beans make it all taste like a fishy, livery breakfast cereal.

His minuscule serving of corned duck with a single rye crisp, purple mustard and horseradish cream made me hungry for the 4-inch-thick pastrami on rye at Katz's Deli up the block. One dish has resulted in a hung jury among critics and gourmets: a solid, succulent block of slowly cooked pork belly, served with black soybeans and turnips. Similar renderings in nearby Chinatown always have what in soul-food parlance is called a "streak-o-lean," a layer of juicy pork meat within the fat. At wd-50, it's just a pure chunk-o-fat, and a dish you will either love, hate or puzzle over.

Pastry chef Sam Mason is somewhat less experimental (though his celery sorbet and tomato-mango ravioli are pretty out there), offering perfectly pleasing desserts such as a gianduja parfait with chocolate cream and kumquat coulis, and a cherry clafouti with pistachio ice cream and a peppered Port reduction.

The eclectic wine list at wd-50 has about 100 selections. It tries hard to complement Dufresne's cooking, but let's face it, a $42 Umathum Zweigelt '01 from Austria might be interesting with the squid linguine, but the grand cru $285 Bertrand Ambroise Clos de Vougeot '93 is going to be wiped out by the fig puree, mint oil, spice bread, sweet potato juice and citrus chutney spread around the menu. The list is sparse in wines less than $50, and markups are somewhat steep.

Uptown, novelty takes a different, nouvelle form at Mix in New York. Alain Ducasse and chef de cuisine Douglas Psaltis are trying to bridge the best foods of French and American coastal cookery by deconstructing such traditional dishes as Lowcountry chicken with shrimp and spicy sauce, here subtitled "volaille carrée laquée, crevettes hachées, sauce épicée."

You could easily pass right by Mix's metal-curtained facade, for there is no name on the door. But inside it's a reverie of rose-colored panels over white brick walls, with a translucent bar that changes color like a chameleon and a chef's table onto which films of food preparation are projected. The table is set with ramekins of the most delicious peanut butter and jelly you'll ever eat. Appetizers come in glass jars -- the elbow macaroni with ham, butter and a truffle jus is a very French, though not wholly successful way to treat mac-and-cheese. A rich New England clam chowder is superb. Main courses include full-flavored pork cooked in a cast-iron skillet with bitter lettuce and barbecue sauce. Desserts include a "heart of chocolate" cake and a chocolate pizza; both are witty but not especially enjoyable, as are many of the very pricey dishes at Mix, which are arranged in prix fixe categories not all that easy to decipher. But it would be hard to spend less than $75 per person dining here, before wine, tax and tip.

Mix's wine list is a screed of intriguing wines from French regions like Bandol, Côtes du Lubéron and Fronsac, with better-known bottles such as Château Clinet Pomerol '97 ($211) and American options such as Gary Farrell Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County Redwood Ranch '02 ($59), Jermann Venezia-Guilia Vintage Tunina '01 ($135) and Ponzi Pinot Noir '01 ($77). For those so inclined, there are even brief organic and biodynamic (wines whose viticulture treatments can include lunar and cosmological consideration) sections.

A few blocks away on Manhattan's Park Avenue, the biggest hit in Midtown is the Lever House Restaurant in New York's first glass skyscraper, Lever House (1952), which predates the more famous Seagram Building across the street. Unfortunately, Lever's restaurant designer, Marc Newson, had to work with a subterranean space that lacks the building's famous blue-green glass. In contrast, architect Philip Johnson made awesome use of the Seagram's copper-colored glass and steel surrounding the Four Seasons restaurant on that building's second floor. You enter the Lever House Restaurant via an MRI-like tubular ramp leading to a large dining room done in a honeycomb motif and beige-gray colors; it resembles a cross between Atlanta airport's shuttle train waiting areas ("The next stop will be Concourse B") and a set for The Dating Game. More playful sensibilities will enjoy the originality, plus it's comfortable if loud.

Chef Dan Silverman's cooking is clean, subtle and imaginative without being in the least capricious. His tartare of fluke is perfect, velvety and briny, with a tangy spring onion and orange dressing. Peking duck breast comes dressed in a sweet-and-sour cherry sauce, with impeccably cooked (meaning not overcooked) fried okra. He chooses his ingredients very carefully: Beautiful fresh foie gras is seared and served simply with pickled peaches. The succulent 2-inch-thick pork chop is from Niman Ranch, with buttery sweet potatoes and apple puree, and scallops à la nage could not have been sweeter. Pastry chef Deborah Snyder, formerly of Union Square Café, provides a first-class ending to the evening with warm fig and cornmeal cake with corn ice cream, lemon meringue pie with blueberry compote, and a chocolate-crème fraîche dome and cashew cake.

The wine list at Lever House is extremely well-chosen, with lots of good bottlings available for less than $40. Trophy wines such as Colgin and Togni seem to run about 100 percent above retail, plus a few bucks.

Ironically, the new Morrells on Broadway (an offshoot of a smaller original at Rockefeller Center, itself a spin-off from one of New York's finest wine merchants) looks as if it would be at home in the Lever House. It's all big glass windows and metal, including a bridge made of subway grating that provides access to a glass-and-steel wine wall that holds some of the 6,500 bottles and almost 1,000 selections offered at this splendid new wine bar and restaurant. Some 150 wines are available by the glass.

Without kowtowing, chef Michael Haimowitz has created a menu in amiable harmony with Morrells' wine theme, starting with an Alsatian onion tart with Gruyère and caraway cream or sweet potato gnocchi with Hudson Valley camembert and Port wine syrup. Roasted baby chicken with foie gras, brioche stuffing, apricots and sweet-and-sour onions is squarely in the culinary comfort zone, and a massive grilled veal porterhouse with creamy spinach and shoestring potatoes is a balm to all the business guys who don't yet rank at The Four Seasons or '21' Club. There is also a fine selection of cheeses, and Victoria Burghi's desserts are irresistible, such as her frozen cheesecake soufflé with a kaffir lime broth and her wholly decadent devil's food truffle with dulce de leche sauce and chocolate streusel, both of which beg you to order a dessert wine.

Certainly the least stylized of these new Manhattan restaurants is 'Cesca, whose name refers to owner Godfrey Polistina's daughter Francesca. But the heart and soul of this Upper West Side newcomer is chef Tom Valenti's open kitchen of admirable generosity, both in its rustic flavors and its good-sized portions (the latter not always the case at Valenti's earlier success, the nearby Ouest). 'Cesca follows the lead of big-hearted and ambitious New York Italian restaurants, such as Babbo and L'Impero, with refined yet hearty dishes on every segment of the menu and prices kept within reason.

Begin with terrific country bread and a platter of marinated seafood or tender red mullet poached in olive oil with couscous. Sardines are roasted in the wood oven to obtain a lusty smokiness and then topped with a soft-boiled egg. Pastas are all sumptuous, from potato gnocchi with braised duck and crisp garlic to small ravioli with shrimp, grape tomatoes and herbed bread crumbs. You won't find better, more tender pork shanks in town than those at 'Cesca, served with sizzling roasted vegetables and peppers. If you are really up for a grand gorge, go with the pancetta-wrapped calf's liver in a sweet-and-sour sauce, with pistachio and melted baby onions as sweet as caramel. Finish with a pear crostata or a buttermilk panna cotta with blood orange sauce and a glass of grappa, of which 'Cesca has an amazing number, and you're all set for whatever New York's winter winds can throw at you.

'Cesca's wine list, compiled by Patrick Bickford (formerly of Jean Georges), is about 300 selections strong and draws from every region of Italy (check out the rarely seen bottlings from Puglia, Basilicata and Abruzzi). What's more, on any given evening they offer at least a dozen amaros -- the bittersweet digestif you're not likely to find elsewhere in such profusion. Wine prices are fair across the board. Stanford White's Bowery Savings Bank (1894), another landmark building, is the setting for a spectacular new restaurant named Capitale that takes every advantage of the Beaux Arts architecture with 60-foot ceilings, a Tiffany glass skylight and superb tile work throughout. This is one of those "only in New York" concepts that may well serve as a catalyst for brightening the still derelict Bowery of the Lower East Side, for Capitale's posh decor and considerable size has become a draw for a lot of hip media and fashion parties.

When Capitale first opened, I was very impressed with what chef Franklin Becker was cooking -- a delicate balance of classic and modern ideas such as oxtail tortelloni in a consommé with Indian spices, and even a New York egg cream complete with a blue seltzer bottle. Unfortunately Becker left Capitale and was replaced by his sous chef, Fred Brightman, who, while maintaining something of Becker's style, does so without his finesse. The result is mushy, bland crab risotto, refrigerator-cold terrine of foie gras and pistachio-crusted fluke pavé with chanterelles, spinach, tomato hearts and ginger-kaffir lime sauce that is far less than the sum of its many parts.

The cast of Capitale seems to have changed too, with already low lighting turned down to nightclub level and pop music turned up to an off-putting throb. Capitale has to decide what it wants to be -- a fine-dining experience or a scene. For the record, the wine list has exceptional breadth and depth.

And so, on goes the season in New York, with more to come each week, it seems, in a city where hope springs eternal that there are plenty of people who want to know what's new and what's good and what's going to have legs.

John and Galina Mariani's new book is The Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

130 Bowery
Telephone (212) 334-5500
Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $24-$37
Credit cards All major

164 W. 75th St.
Telephone (212) 787-6300
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Friday; dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $16-$32
Credit cards All major

Lever House Restaurant
390 Park Ave.
Telephone (212) 888-2700
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $26-$36
Credit cards All major

Mix in New York
68 W. 58th St.
Telephone (212) 583-0300
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Sunday
Cost Dinner, prix fixe menus at $48, $58 and $72
Credit cards All major

900 Broadway
Telephone (212) 253-0900
Open Lunch, daily; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $17-$32; 5-course tasting menu $50, with wine $90
Credit cards All major

50 Clinton St.
Telephone (212) 477-2900
Open Dinner, Monday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $27-$30; 7-course tasting menu $95
Credit cards All major

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