On my first visit to Papillon, the dining room was deserted save for two patrons in a distant banquette, wearing linen napkins tied over their eyes and sampling portions of braised pigs' cheeks. Closer by sat another Fellini-esque figure, a solitary old gentleman bent over with age, a napkin shoved in his collar and tufts of hair sprouting from his ears. What he dined on was hard to say: a chocolate-covered row of scallops, perhaps, or tuna tartare topped with a tuile of crispy green-tea jelly. Our waiter informed us that the blindfolded couple were enjoying a tasting menu, a production called Twenty Mouthfuls that had to be ordered days in advance. My table sat for a time, processing this information in bemused silence. "Welcome to Never-Never Land," someone finally said.
Not that this was a particular surprise. Never-Never Land is chef Paul Liebrandt's chosen culinary habitat. As the executive chef at Atlas, the youthful Englishman (he's 26) made a name for himself serving odd, flamboyant dishes like eel decked with crystallized violets -- until, several months ago, he abruptly gathered up his knives and quit. Now he's reappeared at Papillon, a formerly humble bar and bistro on Hudson Street. The restaurant is owned by three genial Irishmen who used to serve a simple French menu to their neighborhood clientele. With Liebrandt's arrival, their culinary aspirations have gone up a notch, although the Blarney portion of the establishment is still intact: To reach your cutting-edge gourmet meal, you must first pass through a smoky, dimly lit bar filled with gaunt publicans sipping tall pints of Guinness (the culinarily squeamish should stick to the bar, which offers elegantly prepared British delicacies like shepherd's pie and bubble and squeak).
While the dining room itself is devoid of drama -- there are a few potted plants and simple leather banquettes running along the walls -- the menu is devoted to pushing the boundaries of accepted gastronomic taste. On that first visit, however, the fun began more modestly. I stuck to the regular menu ($45 for a three-course dinner), which kicked off with a deliciously smoky amuse-bouche mousse made from black-trumpet mushrooms, with a skim of oil flavored with blood-orange vinaigrette, and a sliver of black truffle that I crunched with my spoon. This was followed by an appetizer of velvety foie gras, served in the manner of a traditional ploughman's lunch, with slivers of Beaufort cheese and bread. It was quite delicious, provided you ignored the covering of bubbly, Ajax-like foam made of salt water and Belgian beer.
Among the eccentric entrées to follow, the pan-seared scallops, layered with pieces of squab, a drizzling of sea urchin, and a long chocolate crisp, got raves at my table -- although I thought the dish tasted like a bizarre form of seafood candy. I preferred the lacquered duck breast, which is expertly carved in sections, then stacked atop a little structure of snow peas, with a crackling of skin, some caramelized pear, and a sliver of hazelnut crumble for a roof. The ballottine of chicken tasted like excessively fruity bath soap when I first sampled it, although its accompaniment of orange-carrot jus and "delirium" has since been replaced by a less cloying potion made with braised red endive and a dripping of dill sauce. The highlight, though, was the côte de boeuf. It's first rubbed in garlic with the bone in, roasted in a smoky thatch of hay, and cut in tender, baby-pink slices and arranged beside a mound of oyster mushrooms and green mangoes, with a paper-thin croûte balancing like a bridge in between.None of Liebrandt's peculiar touches, however, prepared me for the outlandish goofiness of the desserts. The creations are mostly ethereal flans, foams, and gelées made with ingredients like Pepsi, mentholyptus, or Guinness stout. The Guinness is served in jellied form, as part of a tasteless flan made with orange water; the Pepsi is reduced down, then dripped over a kind of frothy, whiskey-flavored zabaglione. I'm not sure either of them tasted very good, but then, that's not always the point at Papillon. Spectacle is the point, and in the end, you can't help enjoying the show.