May 27, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Red Hot and Daring: Cherry (CLOSED)

Black bass carpaccio with fennel oil, chili lime and seeded sticks of lavosh.

          There’s nothing subtle about Cherry, the newish subterranean hideaway adjacent to the Dream Hotel. Cherry is cool. Cherry is hot. Cherry is sexy. I wasn’t prepared for that. A friend said, “Meet me in Chelsea.” I didn’t take time to scan the reviews.

Women seem to be drawn to Cherry’s sexy look, fifty shades of red.

          But there in the dim, at the bottom of too many plushly carpeted stairs, settling into the velvet embrace of a lowish tub chair, I am sniffing the message and wondering if it’s too late for me to be a cougar.

I like my tequila Cherry Bomb with jam, and the calvados-based Ringo Starr too.

          My friends and I are grinning, amused to see we are in a stage set for Fork Play. Seduction. Romance. Surprised to see so many tables of young women dressed for the kill! Where are the guys? I wonder. I reach for the cocktail list and contemplate the calvados sansho-pepper-dusted fuji apple of the “Ringo Star.” Instead I try the Cherry Bomb: cherry jam and black pepper agave in tequila.

We munch foie gras-short rib gyoza while studying the too-tempting menu.

          Unlike so many mixologists’ wet dreams, these pricey ($14 and $15) cocktails are not just jazzed up, perverse concoctions. They’re good. The sake list is serious enough to require a full-time sake sommelier in attendance. That would be Chris Johnson, the Sake Ninja. The 80 varietals on the sake list – “Nuanced,” “Delicate,” “Richer” -- go from $11 for a glass to $750 for a prestigious bottle.

The BondSt tuna tart is painted with creamy ponzu and perfumed with white truffle.

          Let him pour you a match for Chef Andy Choi’s blackened skate or the heavenly tuna tart ine with creamy ponzu wreathed in white truffle fumes. Show some interest? He’ll pull out his little box of rice to illustrate the grades of polish.

Sake Sommelier Chris Johnson, uses a box of different rices to explain the lore of sake.

          Like Madonna, smarter than an Oxford Don, wilier than a hedge fund trader, playing the bimbo, falling out of her bustier and garter belt, Cherry’s Victorian boudoir airs by Studio Gaia – the tufted velvet, dark-wood-framed mirrors, silk shades bathed in the rosy glow – are a setting for ambition. South Korean-born Chef Choi weaves classic Japanese notions and French technique with Korean accents.

It’s the stickiness of sweet raw shrimp with a dab of caviar and a wasabi hit that thrills.

          There’s a tendency toward sweetness, as in the sake-glazed foie gras-short rib gyoza, sent by the house. But the umami wins out, and we finish them anyway. The crunch and salt of nuts saves the shrimp amandine, slathered with sweet almond paste. My friend Lauren says she’ll be back at the bar soon just for this dish.

Uni crouches on a poached egg with creamy tofu soy and a rubble of haricots verts.

          Does the audacity make me too forgiving? Frankly, I’m dazzled by the poached egg with creamy tofu soy, its crunch of string bean bits and uni crouched on top. The stickiness of sweet shrimp tartare, with the heat of wasabi soy and a tickle of American caviar, is intoxicating too. I’m breaking off bits of the crisp-fried head to chew.

Miso sweetens slightly mealy seabass on an island of wonderfully crisped rice.

          No way the three of us would bypass uni crispy rice. I wish the rice were less leathery. It could be merely crisp-edged like the fine rice cake under the miso-glazed sea bass with bonito and furikake. (What is that? Yes, I had to ask. Furikake is a dry condiment that combines sesame seeds, nori, salt and sugar -- crunchy, salty, nutty, earthy.)

My friends are wild about shrimp almondine smothered with sweet almond paste.

          We have pretty much picked favorites from every category, choosing not to blow our dinner allowance or appetite on omakase –a sushi-sashimi selection ($48 to $75) or a full course tasting for the table $85 or $125. We’re sharing the tuna tacos -- three of them, perfect for a ménage à trois -- yellowtail jalapeno roll with kimchee miso, and the lobster roll with dehydrated orange and creamy sansho from the menu of daily specials, $85 per person with tax and tip.

Kimchee miso adds a pleasing je ne se quois to the yellowtail jalapeño roll.

          Still, I’m not willing to surrender the menu. We’ve barely sampled in half of the eleven categories. We bypassed the warm mushroom salad with garlic chips, the madai carpaccio with plum and rice cracker, the bouillabaisse. What could that be? I meant to order the duck à l’orange and toyed with the notion of foie gras with tuna, cherries and spiced cashews. We debated the blackened skate with lotus chips.

Yamasaki whiskey and sweet syrup makes a lusciously squishy bread pudding.

          But we are only mortal. There is barely appetite left for one dessert. Our waitress recommends the whiskey-soaked bread pudding, lush and wet and very sweet on streaks of toffee sauce. The Sake Ninja sends a plate of chocolates, truffles and bark.

Sushi chef Josh Bedell’s sea forest reflects the market, offering ecstatic gasps.

          Writing this Saturday afternoon made me hungry. That night I returned to the bar at Cherry. I sipped a Ringo Star and munched cassava chips with Japanese seasoning. A friend joined me to share the black sea bass carpaccio with fennel oil, chili lime vinegar sauce and pastry sticks, “furkake lavosh,” the menu calls them. The Sake Ninja had recommended I try the crunchy salmon avocado roll, elevated from cliché by being studded with sundried tomato purée and spicy pollock roe mayo. Yes! Yes! Yes! Right on.

Behind a march of sushi sits crunchy salmon avocado roll with sun-dried tomato puree.

          Now he urges me to order a sashimi and sushi omakase. A lush garden on ice appears. I decide this calls for sake. Something fresh and clear, I tell him. I take a sip. His choice is exactly right. I’m drinking Sake Kaiun, he tells me. It means “luck changer.” I consider that. Is it an omen?

These are the sashimi bowls from tonight’s $48 omikase.

          I’ll start with the sashimi in little cups. Fresh raw octopus with ginger garlic soy, plum paste and green tea salt. Sweet shrimp with spicy cod roe. Uni on a scallop. On to sushi. Croatian otoro with a flutter of gold leaf. Flying fish with little flowers of red shiso. Bonito with yuzu crème fraîche, tomato and ginger. Copper River sockeye salmon. Kampachi with grated daikonsteeped in chili.

The Sake Ninja understood exactly what I wanted. The name means “luck changer.”

          He treats himself to ginger mille crépe, layering ginger mousse and oozing plum wine caramel. I am happy with the banana tarte tatin, its salty caramel, and vanilla ice cream. I see from my bill, $144.78 all in, that he did not charge for the sake. That calls for an etxra tip. By the way, the place morphs into Wild Cherry on Mondays when the chef experiments at his whim. The regular menu is available as well. It was Korean barbecue yesterday.

          I’m still wondering if I can handle a change of luck. As for fussy eaters, neophiliacs, Scarlet O’Haras and calculating Don Juans, seeking a setting for sensuous adventure: I give you Cherry.

355 West 16th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. 212 929 5800. Dinner 6 pm to midnight. Friday and Saturday limited menu midnight to 2 am.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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