June 16, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Gary Robins: Big Deal on Seventh Avenue South

 
Red shades march down the room toward the stage set grill and oven. Photo: Steven Richter

        Can Sheridan Square with Gary Robins calibrating the fireworks at wood-burning grill and oven add a little class to the pop hullabaloo on Seventh Avenue South where Sushi Samba and sidewalk flirtation set the pace?  I can’t help wondering if this will work in that first week as I see Gary Robbins in the distance directing traffic at his stage set grill in the space that once was Café Rafaella and Central Kitchen.

        The tall slim Gotham Bar and Grill alum still has that boyish Jimmy Stewart air and the three star aura of the Biltmore Room even after taking his lumps in the pressure cooker at the Russian Tea Room. The owners who signed Robins here with a promise of possible partnership are counting on that magnetism. Indeed, if you were around and eating out in the early nineties discovering his wild flavorings at Aja, you, like me, would follow him anywhere. There he was “searing, layering, sculpting, wafting, gift-wrapping all the perfumes and the fires of the Orient (we didn’t know from political correctness then) into amazing food, most of it delicious, occasionally brilliant,” as I said in my New York review on December 12, 1994. I was mesmerized by the cunning bursts of chili heat orchestrated with American flamboyance, later much imitated, long before Spice Market became the name of the game.  I still have occasional cravings for Robins Aja mango sundae -- with its bizarrely marvelous chili macademia praline brittle, tamarind lime syrup and threads of kaffir leaf.


        Pungent dressing elevates fluke sashimi in its glass frame dish. Photo: Steven Richter      

        Granted it’s still shakedown time.  The sprawling space with its warm red shaded fixtures above and tall tables alongside the bar, glass doors flung open to the sidewalk is not full and the staff is still green, huddling now and then, trying to figure it out. “Do you like your food so far?” the server asks three times too often, finally leaning his face low right next to mine so I’ll know it’s me he’s asking.  I try to fry him with a searing glance but Teflon doesn’t melt.  “Yes,” my companions chorus, hoping he’ll disappear.  Happily the trio of young cooks tend the wood-burning oven and grill under a tiled marquee-like hood with graceful confidence, the quarterback taking directions from an invisible prep kitchen over an ear phone.

        This reined-in Gary Robins is not the high-wire adventurer I had such a wild crush on at Aja. But even working in a more safely accessible self-styled rustic mood, his food is elegant and zings with flavor. What elevates dayboat fluke sashimi beyond its shimmering freshness is the sting of yuzu and mustard oil.  Squash blossoms get plumped full of jumbo lump crab and served with avocado, roasted corn salsa and a mango chili sauce.  Impeccably cooked quail nests in risotto with a seasonal bouquet of  spring onions, peas, blonde morels and apple smoked bacon, a starter two might share. And everyone wants more than just a taste of my creamy polenta with gorgonzola, a side I’ve chosen as my appetizer. The scattering of toasted pine nuts adds a pleasant crunch.

 
Monkfish, slightly rare as requested, with a spicy crust and spring vegetables. Photo: Steven Richter

        Chefs suffering from rigor mortis of the imagination are still slicing roasted duck breast thin and fanning it on the plate – my least favorite ho-hum.  Here Robins pounds two breasts together, forming a torchon, sears it crisp and slices it into luscious, rare, meaty rosettes on a thin swath of cauliflower mousseline with braised favas, string beans and sour cherry rhubarb chutney.  There is nothing unique about the Road Food Warrior’s home made taglierini with clams, garlic, white wine and chiles. It’s only perfect. And I’m impressed with the evening special: monkfish dusted with a spicy mix of fennel, coriander and white peppercorns on a wild nettle risotto with baby leeks and Thumbelina carrots.   Blueberry almond tart is remarkably good but the lemon ice cream on top is amazing – like the best lemon curd frozen.  Our friend for whom the point of dinner is dessert is happy with a straightforward warm chocolate tart  and macademia praline ice cream. (I say straightforward as a compliment, saluting the pastry chef’s ability to refrain from cilantro panna cotta and rutabaga sorbet.) But butterscotch pot de crème needs more butterscotch and a lot less whipped cream. That intense superrich, fondant-like chocolate sorbet is a recipe from Didier Oudils, protègé of Michael Guérard. “I’ve been dragging that sorbet recipe around whereever I go,” the chef confides.

 
No need to reinvent a perfection of clams with homemade pasta. Photo: Steven Richter

        Will Robins fans descend on this crowded Village strip? What of the pedestrian rabble passing by, studying the prices on the menu, who never heard of Robins or his three star reign at the Biltmore Room? Is there traffic for $15 foie gras ravioli and $36 veal chops, with dinner for two and a modest red, plus tip, topping $150?  Come by for that fluke and the quail. Taste the luscious duck rosettes.  Cast your vote. 

        130 Seventh Avenue South between 10th Street and Charles. 212 352 2237.

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Talay Makes a Play for the Neighborhood

 
Stone lions with golden toenails in West Harlem suggest Talay’s ambition. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s not easy to find Talay. Indeed if your taxi tries to go west on 135th Street from Broadway you’ll hit a dead end.
 Thai beef salad. Photo: Steven Richter
“Is it in New Jersey?” you’ll wonder.  But if you exit the West Side Highway at 125th Street, pass Fairway at 133rd, you’ll come to the corner of 135th and 12th Avenue, where two tall preening stone lions sporting gold toenails flank the door, and inside a 1925 freight warehouse, Buddhas and loungey pin lights echo Harlem’s new ambition. The Thai, Filipino and Latino food from the huge open kitchen in the dining room just beyond the bar, already drawing locals, is certainly good enough to invest in a detour. And you might want to make the trek to discover what my confrères at New York magazine single out as a new restaurant row and to experience an off-the-radar isolation from the city you know. Come, if like us, you feel a bit of adventure spices up dinner.  It’s a long trek too for King Phojanakong, the Thai-Filipino-American owner of Kuma Inn on Ludlow, co-executive chef here with Laos-born Soulayphet Schwader, one time chef de cuisine at BLT Steak in Washington D.C.  Owner Pedro Veras is already reporting disco action in the lounge upstairs (with liquor by the bottle) and neighbors coming in large groups for dinner.


Soulayphet Schwader (above) and Kuma Inn’s King Phojanakong share the range. Photo: Steven Richter      

        Now in its early days, don’t be surprised if the amiable waiter brings out a dish or two you didn’t order – it’s sent by one of the chefs wanting you to taste something you missed, the little balls of lemongrass grilled pork sausage perhaps, fabulous pineapple shrimp fried rice or the garlicky lemongrass-marinated baby back ribs. The waiter is so agreeable we don’t bristle when he tells us everything is meant to share although we aren’t people who like instructions and one of us doesn’t eat mussels.  Too bad, these are served in a delicious coconut curry perfumed broth.  And there are only three giant prawns off the grill with a spicy aioli – a challenge to divide by five.

 
Whole crispy snapper is fiercely gorgeous but a little too cooked. Photo: Steven Richter

        Tuna and avocado spring rolls are full of flavor and crunch.  The sutble sweetness of Granny Smith apples barely makes a dent in the torrid Thai chile heat of the green papaya salad with slices of rare beef draped on top – a plus for our hotheads. Indeed the only loser is the desultory pad thai and the slightly dry chunks of ropa vieja brisket – made with sake and oyster sauce for an Asian accent, Phojanakong notes.  Charred bistek churrasco with three little sauces alongside – sweet, sour and hot  - is fine and the whole, fiercely gorgeous crispy snapper is only a little small and a little dry. While the chefs debate what dessert should be, sorbet will clear the palate. Then you can do some late night shopping at Fairway before heading home.

    701 West 135th Street at 12th Avenue. 212 491 8300.

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