It was a knockout of a night in June. Not yet summer, but close enough that women were finally able to reveal freshly sun-kissed shoulders in freshly bought sleeveless cashmere boat necks. Even strolling down the Sweeney Todd- friendly streets of the meatpacking district toward Fressen, the first restaurant from juice bar jefe Ronnie Teitelbaum, didn’t alter the fact that life felt like it was about to be soothed by a season full of lilting breezes (who knew, but that’s what it felt like in June).
However, inside Fressen you could have braised a pot roast on Maguy Le Coze’s forehead and served it alongside spinach steamed solely by the fierce gaze of Amy Sacco. Ms. Le Coze owns Le Bernardin – and normally her eyes and spirit gleam with a radiance to rival sunrise over Sacré Coeur. Her restaurant is to food what Jerusalem is to Western religion. Her friend, Ms. Sacco, owns Lot 61, a smashingly seductive latter-day El Morocco, where the staff is so engaging and the stuff they set down so appealing that this child of the sixties can almost forgive the woman for creating a nightspot mainly to nurture the mating habits of 26-year-olds. These two restaurateurs could teach more about their craft over a bottle of St. Julien than could be learned in a semester of courses at the French Culinary Institute. Since neither leaves her home base very often, expectations run high when they head out together. But after dining at Fressen, their mood had sunk lower than Orrin Hatch’s presidential aspirations.
It didn’t start out this way. Forty-five minutes earlier, the pair were lounging on a sofa near the bar, raving about their surroundings, which – once you get past the coyly nameless shower-glass-door façade – is an unerring example of modern swank; a sepia-toned, Mondrian painting in 3-D, three rooms that are spacious, spare, and sleeker than an Audi TT. Every surface is hard and urban, every detail as dramatic as a third-act soliloquy. Yet the combined effect of Fressen’s beautifully integrated elements is unexpectedly restful and more comfortable than cruising in a stretch limousine. In fact, once you note that almost anyone sitting in a booth or against a wall is framed like a lusciously high-contrast George Hurrell photograph of Gary Cooper or Hedy Lamarr, you may want to buy all the lighting fixtures. Fressen goes one better than just being hip: It actually makes you look hip.
So, who could blame the young and the stressed less for showing up here faster than Patricia Duff can change lawyers? Unfortunately, expecting a restaurant – especially one assembled by owners inexperienced with operating one of this scale – to match its quality to its popularity within a few weeks is as foolish as handing a Lamborghini over to a student driver.
Sure enough, Fressen’s clutch kept slipping. On this night, the kitchen was out of two thirds of the menu, waiters kept dropping out of sight, and then the air conditioner went out of commission. Some dishes clicked. Others just clattered. And the kitchen sent them out with the rhythm of a marathon dancer into her fourth day. As both women tore into gristly steaks using sheer will more than the sharpness of their cutlery, Le Coze admitted she should have known better. “It was too soon. I mean, does this plate look right? Does that one?” No. But the women did look fabulous. “You let me know when they are ready,” she said.
Okay, ladies. You can come back now. The staff is more alert and better cued, far more eager to be helpful emissaries than newfound chums. More important, the house has opted not to get away with merely a post-two-Cosmopolitans menu that might do 147 or Torch proud. (We once had a salad at the latter that tempted us to check amazon.com to see if Lawnboy had put out a cookbook.) Instead, chef Lynn McNeely has pulled an “Odeon,” taking the heat and not getting out of the kitchen this summer until his food could stand up to the originality of its setting.
The kitchen’s preference for organic produce (noted on the menu) is encouraging. But more important is the restraint with which those special ingredients are used. I don’t want to take up a battle station in other critics’ ongoing chicken-liver wars, but Fressen offers a novel variation: brisker, dryer, and sharper than the other contenders, with a brash garlic dressing. Buoyant sea scallops now sparkle thanks to the sass of pea leaves. An elegant escabeche of sardines tames even the tablemates who grimaced at finding the word on the menu. Greens don’t get lost amid the scene-stealing flavors of figs and toasted hazelnuts because the spry sherry vinaigrette lets them rise to the challenge. Crackling grilled prawns are wonderfully perfumed by pea vines on a bed of summer greens. Even baby octopus, dark and sweet and braced by lemon-olive oil, can please the most timid diners – provided they look away while forking away.
A brightly grilled branzino needs nothing more than shaved fennel and preserved lemon. Pan-seared tuna is almost a solid match for the tartness of grilled eggplant and black-olive vinaigrette. The snapper grilled with ginger and mint is so much better, tasting fresh and new, almost unnerving, but toasted spaghetti with cockles just lies there limp. Not enough garlic, not enough snap. And a pan-roasted chicken is not nearly as lusty as a crispy Amish one speckled with caper berries, Vidalia onions, and lardons. But duck is happily paired with red cabbage and liver toast; a pot-au-feu is an invigorating way to feature mullet; and as for that steak, after three tries, the pepper-crusted rib-eye finally hit a bull’s-eye.
It’s a strong room. It’s an ambitious menu. So how did the desserts turn out so precious? Ricotta in phyllo shell and port sauce, or champagne float with verbena sorbet. Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Which to choose? How about neither? Except for a chocolate-graham ice-box cake, which almost audibly begs for a scoop of ice cream on the side with each crunch, the current desserts are too deliberately idiosyncratic to ever be crowd-pleasers.
Yet everything else about Fressen deems it the most sophisticated boîte to unfold in town this summer. Now if they can just find a better air-conditioner repairman, come up with two confections to make a sweet-tooth ache with happiness (after all, sugar can be organic), and maybe wield enough aerosol to eliminate the smell of melted-beef tallow from your J.P. Tod’s, they’re bound to wind up on the receiving end of Ms. Le Coze’s smile. She’s ready whenever you are, guys.
Fressen, 421 West 13th Street (212-645-7775). Dinner, 6-midnight. Monday through Saturday. Appetizers, $7-$12; entrées, $18-$26. A.E., M.C., V.