June 3, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Melibea Cruising 

Many cultures do a version of this tomato-sweet-pepper salsa Matbucha; delicious here.

          “A Study in Tomato.” Oops. I missed that. Right here on the menu at Melibea. Under salads, it lists: “A Study in Tomato.” A smart-ass dish, a concept challenge. Normally I would pounce. But I was distracted trying to get everyone to order something different. 

When the sun sets, the room gets dark with candles reflected in the mirrors.

          It’s no cinch orchestrating four cheeky, wiseacre New Yorkers into ordering dinner without seeming too bossy, when bossy is what you are. Especially with a menu this original, so larded with a mix of irresistibles and incomprehensibles.

Even that old hat hummus emerges from the kitchen as lively as a Texas cheerleader.

          “Everybody just choose two things from any category,” I suggest, trying to whip the ensemble into action. “I’ll order last.” We’re still stuck on cocktails. The painstakingly curated list is annoyingly hyper-creative for me. Cava and cherry tomatoes. No cava please. Rum and rosemary with yellow Chartreuse. Rosemary and Chartreuse kill it for me. Smoky mezcal and pimentón. Double yoicks. Three of us have settled on rum and ginger with ginger beer.

Falafel comes with sautéed spinach, raisins, labneh cheese and tahini-lemon dressing.

          “Why can’t we just have sangria?” I ask.  Barraca next door, with the same partners, has half a dozen sophisticated variations on that prom drink. “We don’t have Sangria here,” our waitress protests. I call for the manager. He offers to go next door and get a pitcher of my choice, the Tempranillo-spiked fruit cocktail, but he can’t charge us, he says. Okay. I got carried away. I forgot I was trying to be anonymous.

Slices of fine duck confit and cooked pears grace a risotto appetizer.

          So then let me cut to the cheese. We’re riding a Mediterranean roller coaster at Melibea tonight. Thrilling highs, edging into ecstasy, then plummeting to wrenching lows, before searing off to the stratosphere again. Risotto with surprisingly flavorful duck confit and cooked pear. Even an old hat like hummus, lively as a Texas cheerleader. Homemade ricotta with its own cured lemon spin.  An $8 bowl of something as humble as matbucha (a garlicky salsa of tomatoes and roasted peppers you might find in Israel or Morocco) is hauntingly complex.

Raviolini stuffed with ricotta, bacon and egg yolk in an almond sauce tastes twice-salted.

          But then we’re on a rude plummet into fiercely over salted venison moussaka, super salted cod with pumpkin and a raviolini salt marsh with bacon and egg yolk. Too many falls. It cannot be an accident. It seems to be someone’s idea of how these creations should taste.  Is that why Melibea is empty at 7:30 on a Friday night while Barraca, its sexy Sofia Vergara older sister on the corner, is jumping out of its pareo? And how to explain a full house at Melibea two hours later, that has the staff racing as soft jazz gives way to bossa nova and pop twaddle. Perhaps Barraca is sending the overflow.

Saffron-infused apple salad with house-made duck ham, dried figs and goat cheese.

          Of course, you want to come here. Be an early responder. You’ll want to be wary of the salt licks, at least till Chef Jésus Núñez admits to this felony. Meanwhile, if you’re just two, you might want to start with that remarkable matbucha to spoon on thick slices of challah toast and the born-again hummus with beets, boiled eggs and herbs to pile on the house pita, which actually looks more like a near-pizza.

This luscious caramelized lamb arrives inside a handsome Moroccan tajine.

          Or perhaps, go for the ricotta, unlike any other, with its preserved lemon and a tang of fresh oregano, on a streak of Modena balsamic and olive oil, to slap on small squares of focaccia. Follow with the lamb tajine. I can’t wait to taste it again: juicy caramelized chunks of meat piled on savory couscous with garbanzos, bits of dried plum (prune of course) and yogurt cream. It doesn’t say so but our pal, the ethnicjunkie, detects minced olives and preserved lemon, too, as well as mint, harissa and the Moroccan “all-spice,” ras el hanout.

Eggplant is slow cooked to get a roasted-vegetable glaze, then served with almonds.

          The lowly chicken, elevated by Syrian spices, is a hit too.  We try to cancel it because appetizer portions are so much bigger than anticipated and we’ve devoured several house gifts: That salty raviolini. Wonderful, slow cooked eggplant in a vegetable glaze with almonds. Fried cauliflower with raisins and a spicy aioli. And a raw Brussels sprout side that is too tough to chew. Of course, being polite and a lover of Brussels sprouts, you try.

Chicken is marvelous, marinated in Syrian spices on a rubble of grains with dried figs.

          But too late. The handsomely tanned bird swoops to a landing, perched on “cereal” with dried figs and a lemon touch. It’s delicious too, a must even if it makes you sad to think about Syria.

My friends like the five-minute egg with sunchoke cream and foie gras better than I do.

          If you’re with friends, order all the above, plus the falafel salad. It’s really four small fried chickpea orbs, with whole garbanzos at the core, and comes on a platter with sautéed spinach, almonds, white raisins, labneh cheese and tahini-lemon dressing.

This is a $7 fried cauliflower side with raisins and spicy aioli.

          They were out of the baba ghanoush. But given the hummus score, you might need to try that too. My friends like the five-minute egg on sunchoke cream with onion marmalade and seared foie gras more than I do.  It struck me as a demented combo and looked demented too.

Chef Jesus Núñez explains that the menu is a voyage on the Mediterranean.

          That’s the roller coaster. Chef Núñez comes by to explain that from his home in Valencia, he looked out over the Mediterranean at all the countries represented on his menu.  So it’s not a fusion. It’s a voyage. He seems to have sworn off the excesses that roiled the bourgeoisie at Grafitti on the Upper West Side. He couldn’t help it. He was a graffiti artist for years before he settled at the range. I’ll be back. I might be afraid to try salmon and scallop carpaccio with almond ice cream and tapenade. Next time I’ll try to leave an island of appetite free for dessert.

2 Bank Street just south of Greenwich Avenue. 212 463 0090. Open 5:30 to midnight.

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

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