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Rink-Side Seats

Rockefeller Center reopens two restaurants, Sea Grill and Rock Center Café, but their ambitious menus are forced to compete with the show outside.

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There is no greater example of live theater in this city than a warm, unobstructed rink-level seat for watching the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center . . . Oh, come on! Don't react as if you had a piece of masking tape stuck to the small of your back. All that twitching only means you haven't done this recently. Okay, it's corny, but go to either the reopened Sea Grill, south of the rink, or the newly opened Rock Center Café, to the north, during skating hours, and you have my word as a Bronx-born smart-ass, you'll laugh, you'll sigh, you'll wish you'd had more kids, or at least more kids you liked. No bouquets at La Grenouille or dancing-bear fish tanks at the Russian Tea Room can match the delightful distraction of slightly less than Olympic athletes facing the challenges of hard water. A business lunch becomes much more revealing, depending on how your client responds. Awkward first dates and long-married couples find something to talk about. If you're alone, it beats a Tom Clancy novel. Of course, it's cornily romantic, a picture postcard. But one that sells for good reason. It makes New York accessible, fanciful, livable. And it smells better than a hansom cab.

Unfortunately, by the time you read this, weather conditions and commercialism will have transformed Sonja Henie's former home away from home into an outdoor café. The frigid floor show reopens in mid-October. With the view now so cluttered by people, umbrellas, ficus trees, and Prometheus looking like just another sunburned tourist in inappropriate attire, you're stuck focusing instead on what you're eating. And though nothing is likely to do a triple axel onto your plate, that's hardly reason to assume the Sea Grill offers no spectacle.

First looks can be deceiving. Never a fishnetted locker to begin with, the room has been further streamlined, with enough un-etched frosted sea-foam glass panels to open a day spa, and a thousand glubs of not-so-tiny bubbles inlaid into terrazzo. It's all lean, clean, devoid of preen, reflective of a conscious desire to make the best of a space inherently lacking in distinction. No one is likely to go back to either Tulsa or his office on 39th Street with photos of his mateys amid the Davey Jones décor. But there is a good chance one may look at the agenda to find the next open date to dive into another plateful of dense, crunchy portobello fries or briskly limed striped-sea-bass carpaccio, or get stroked by the sensuality of salmon-belly tartare, so much smoother and sweeter than the usual smoked salmon.

Executive chef Edward Brown has patiently crafted an enviable reputation for grace on the shaved ice, and this new incarnation of the Sea Grill proves his skill at balancing a menu that is buoyant with invigorating ideas yet still capable of raising familiar tastes, hitherto earthbound as a sit spin, to a gleefully airborne level of surprise. A splatter of mint oil in familiar tomato bisque gives it a brash kick. Asparagus is weightlessly tossed in tempura to satisfy not only green-market junkies but also those who love fried anything. Sardines, basking in sherry vinegar and paired with red-onion confit, are almost as easy to enjoy as shrimp cocktail. In fact, there is so much lightness to Brown's tuna tartare in wasabi, vegetable salad with manchego, and crab salad over fava beans and preserved lemon that one is tempted to scavenge all round the table, picking at everything. But when necessary, his lobster chowder, anchored with a steadfast base of potato, celery, and leek, and his ravioli of diver scallops and foie gras have the substance and commanding ability to enforce table manners. Don't dissuade those with forks in hand from closing in on your bowl of huge Prince Edward Island mussels lapping in a spunky Thai curry, though. Mutiny is always ugly.

Longing for terrific, unfussed-with crab cakes? Brown bakes beauts, with a smack of mustard-and-scallion sauce on the side. Chatham cod, flaky and lustrous, luxuriates in a black-bean broth enriched by couscous. The lunch menu's grilled salmon, enlivened by a sweet-pea emulsion, and the evening's slow-roasted salmon in sorrel are stronger swimmers than either the plank-roasted Pacific king or the upstaged tuna wrapped in prosciutto and foie gras. Handsomely grilled sea scallops offer a wonderful trio of Peruvian lima beans, Piquillo peppers, and baby artichokes. Dover sole's spicy curry more than makes up for a slight shortfall of promised crispness. Dover sole à la plancha is shockingly sophisticated, an unapologetic old-fashioned dish, beautifully "undone." And order a spring risotto for the whole table. Don't question. Just do it.

My biggest complaint? I wish Brown's superb hazelnut-crusted crabs were always available, 24 hours a day. Follow those critters with a black-pepper apple tarte Tatin or a passion-fruit gratin, and you'll momentarily forget the loss of Prometheus' skating friends. Then again, once they return, the soft-shells will be gone. Maybe you can't have everything, after all. But how nice, thanks to its usual view and Chef Brown's menu, that Sea Grill can satisfy so many grown-up desires, long after so many childhood ones have been put on ice.

The Sea Grill, 19 West 49th Street (212-332-7610). Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday 5-9:45 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $12; entrées, $19 to $29. All major credit cards.

Like the rest of Olympic speed skater Bonnie Blair's family, the north side of the rink has never broken any records on the ice. Having gone under more names than you'll find on a commemorative Menudo calendar, it is now the Rock Center Café and is trying oh-so-very-hard to be perhaps one too many things in its young, slate-clean life: a tasteful oasis for those wishing to snack and watch the world glide by; an unchallenging, soothing repast post along the wearisome tourist's trail; a smart, straightforward dining spot for neighborhood businessmen; and a noteworthy restaurant that can handle its eclectic Italian-slanted menu with effortless élan.

There is strain everywhere. Waiters are unsure of their duties, tripping over words and one another. The menu is uneven and lacks cohesion. The chairs are chairman-of-the-boardroom comfortable, but the lights recreation-room cheap. And an understandable, but regrettable, across-the-board timidity in seasoning compromises almost every dish. Few things are ever enough of what they strive to be. The dense but tame Bolognese begs for red pepper and garlic. The minestrone is thin chicken-vegetable soup. Lobster bisque is pleasant but lacks fire. Wasabi must have been no more than waved over the calamari sauce. Porterhouse steak is thinner than a Saturday Daily News and delivered with as little salt or heat. And yet. Good-naturedness counts for something.

Kids who crave junk and sugar, foreigners speaking little English, tourists terrorized by any spice stronger than salt, and media executives fond of the familiar -- Rock Center is dealing with a hand most restaurants dread being dealt. But it's doing its damnedest to please. And sometimes it does, with a simple beef-carpaccio-and-fennel salad, fresh Malpeques on the half-shell, and spaghetti vongole that kind of bites back. Two cheers for a tender lobster salad with avocado and a fragrantly poached sea bass in tomato broth (forget the word spicy in front, but it's still nice). Prime rib and double lamb chops rate at least 5.7's.

The kitchen has tried baking lasagna three different ways. All have been gooey, flat disasters. So why am I willing to bet that if management just let chef Theo Schoenegger do Italian food his way, he'd scare very few diners with more dishes like his impressive Amish chicken, and he might significantly perk up his veal chop Milanese, his farfalle with salmon, and especially his cioppino, which, filled with tender seafood as it is, only hints at the full-bodied shellfish-and-garlic broth it craves?

A hunch? A hope? A desire to see earnest effort pay off? It's no different from watching new skaters, holding on to that rail for dear life for three revolutions, suddenly let go and glide. Oh, they fall. Hard. But you have to see their faces while they're doing it. Diners can't help but clap even though they know they're not heard. The Rock Center Café is still such an agreeable place to watch the innocent show, I'll be back as soon as we set the clocks back, hoping they're better on both sides of the glass. You're sneering, aren't you? What a sap. Fine. Don't come. Go to Pastis. I'm sure they'll have a table for you -- in an hour or two. I revel in my Ice Capades. You can twirl on it.

The Rock Center Café, 20 West 50th Street (212-332-7620). Breakfast, Monday through Friday, 8:30-10 a.m. Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, 5-10 p.m. daily. Appetizers, $8 to $19; entrées, $15 to $32. All major credit cards.


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