March 19, 1991 | Vintage Insatiable
March: Brio, Faith and Optimism

 3/19/1991

     March is an act of faith and optimism, a rebirth in the narrow townhouse where once Brive thrilled and, before that, Bobby and Karen Pritsker played out scenes from a marriage at their brilliant Dodin-Bouffant. In the end, Brive faded. But March is crowded, playing to a full house. That proves that genius isn't enough. In fact, that proves that genius may not even be necessary.

     Having left the security of La Colombe d'Or to make it on their own at a shaky moment for upscale dining, chef Wayne Nish and his partner, Joseph Scalice, seem to have found an audience for their $45 prix fixe. The whimsy is gone, along with Pritskers’ eclectic antiques, but the handsome Gropius tapestry banquettes remain. There is a fire crackling in the fireplace, and a pleasant welcome. Snow furs the garden in ermine. The room is brighter and lighter now and seems to have grown, tiny tables in almost claustrophobic intimacy, but it still feels as if one were dining in someone's home. Handsome "Biedermeier" chairs, Art Deco chandeliers, and odd bits of pretty china intensify that fantasy.

     There's not a murmur of pretension. Indeed, the service can be almost too casual (although I'll grant our server may have been unnerved by the angst of pleasing me).

     Tonight I'm happy here, cheered by two wonderful half-bottles of wine my guest and I are sharing in March's lovely crystal, a Phelps Chardonnay and a Cabernet from Clos du Val ($33 together). There is an Oriental rug on the floor and one in needlepoint on the wall, somewhat quieting the din, and we have chosen well. After Nish's signature giveaway-- his exquisite raviolo of spaghetti squash and pear in a wonton skin afloat in an acid pool of tomato water -- come savory rabbit sausage with bread pudding (it could be moister) and a perfection of lobster, with barley risotto and the provocative tingle of shiso leaf. Thick, crusty red snapper sits in a puddle of broth with diced celery root. The chicken is boned, under crispy skin, salty and good, substantial with its bouquet of fabulous greens and a squiggle of aioli. Grapefruit sorbet and grapefruit slices splashed with gin make a perfect finale.

    Nish is earnest and serious. He came to his true love late, from the printing business. He was already in his thirties and on his honeymoon when he walked into Fredy Girardet's restaurant outside Lausanne (carrying an ode to Girardet in this magazine). What he tasted that day made him decide to make his hobby a profession.

     Barry Wine gave him his first job, at the Quilted Giraffe. At Colombe d'Or, he worked with a Provençal palette. Here, his obsession has him smoking his own salmon and cooking fish with an ingenious technique that combines sautéing and steaming for the ultimate delicacy of texture. In the morning on his way to work, he shops Chinatown for leafy mustard greens, bok choy, snow-pea fronds, baby spinach, and vegetables whose names he doesn't know. But not all of his inventions really work. A spectacular cider sauce graces acorn squash but does nothing for shrimp that are supposedly the star of the dish. Seared salmon with tomato salad seems equally uninspired. The liver is fine, but itsy bits of carrot in butter taste like baby food.

     Angus sirloin, aged in the house, too cooked (a misunderstanding), comes with sublime garlic-potato purée. And the salmon under its fabulous crunch of skin should be rarer, too (we didn't specify, no one asked).

     For a $10 supplement (happily, the only extra on the prix fixe), taste six of March's desserts -- or concentrate on the warm chocolate cake with pear sauce and a swirl of caramel, hazelnut torte under frothy lemon cream, or mascarpone pudding perched on a chocolate macaroon in a sea of deep, dark espresso sauce.

    There are wizards and there are hopefuls. At the moment, Nish may not be a candidate for the Gastronomic Hall of Fame, but he certainly seems to be pleasing the crowd at March.

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