West Side Manhattan is a tweedy mosaic of two-paycheck families, domestic start-ups, swingles, and certified intellectuals. Rich or mortgaged to the hilt, sophisticated or just off the bus from Kansas, kosher and Zen, we blithely crisscross Manhattan in search of dinner. But since the ambitious Ansonia on Columbus at 76th sputtered out after raves, uptown restaurateurs are wary. Then the folks at Phoebe's looked at population trends and decided to get serious about the kitchen; they recruited chef John Tesar and came up with a no-frills, no-threat moniker: The Dining Room on Columbus.
Tesar's delicious cultural-free-for-all cooking heated up the Village for a while, but ultimately couldn't save 13 Barrow, and later One/Three, from front-of-the-house drift. He has only to glance next door at the crowds storming Ocean Grill to understand his mission here. West Siders don't really want three-star fandangos at three-star prices, Tesar is convinced. Not that his savory raviolo of roasted duckling, artichokes, and fried spinach with a tomato compote, or crusty sea scallops in an herbal sea broth, aren't stylish. The tower of roasted beets with fennel-apple salad and aged goat's milk cheese, and the fabulous "torn" (for chopped) Mediterranean salad tingle with edible chichi. And slipping pineapple into exquisitely nutty skate in classic brown butter with capers and lemon bits is a small insolence that really works. Indeed, the chef's sure touch with smart flavoring and citric balance is a positive fugue that instantly captures the attention of the pampered foursome at our table -- a pleasant shock in the innocence of bare brick walls and bare wood floor, the former a leftover from Phoebe's adolescence as a mating scene.
An occasional gaffe from the serving crew, eager and green, seems more amusing than annoying in this setting, and the prices feel gentle, entrées all $22 or less, though three courses with wine, tax, and tip quickly add up to $100 for two. That's what passes for reasonable at the moment -- often with infinitely less pleasing food than Tesar's. Now, prompted by the pleasure of oyster fritters on charred-tomato salsa, the mingled flavors of asparagus purée and chive oil in the shellfish risotto, and the caramelized crustiness of a plump, moist pork chop with corn-jalapeño flan, our guests -- rarely seen this side of town -- are already plotting their return.
Tesar is still doing his own desserts: a fudgy chocolate torte with hazelnut ice cream; verbena-lemon shortcake with berries; marvelous lemon-curd tart. And there are flubs. At times, too much salt or not enough. On a second tasting, the oysters are overwhelmed by their thick batter. Sampling lunch in the sidewalk café one Saturday, I'm disappointed that neither the overprocessed tuna burger nor the listless, unseasoned hamburger is as good as the roll. The eggs benedict are textbook but unremarkable. And too much lemon spoils the torn salad that was so winning at dinner. With warmer weather unleashing waves of West Siders competing for those umbrella'd tables, Tesar had better get his daytime crew up to speed. For now, he is fine-tuning the new menu. Sea bass takes over for the skate. Soft-shell crabs will float in on seaweed in a tomato-water vinaigrette. Summer truffles will perfume the filet mignon: a nonthreatening upgrade for the West Side's aging boomers.
The Dining Room on Columbus, 380 Columbus Avenue, at 78th Street (724-2363). Dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight, Sunday to 10 p.m. Lunch/brunch, Saturday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.