There's something about a cool dining room that initially puts me off. I don't mean cool as in hip, but as in brushed shiny surfaces and pale monochromatics: no ruffles, no flourishes, no living anything blooming in color. Undeniably, this look has its advantages. It's gleamingly smudgeproof enough to withstand any proposed new Board of Health codes. It radiates a nothing-to-hide openness. It's a blissful oasis for anyone with allergies and hay fever.
But if the space were any less romantic, you might as well be eating at your desk. And in a world too eager to pace itself to the ticking of the 60 Minutes stopwatch, a restaurant that wants us to enjoy its sensory delights would do well to distance itself from surroundings that remind diners of their deadlines.
Which leaves me mystified as to why the owners of Cena chose to create an environment more Spacely Sprockets than seductive. True, all New Yorkers should bow in deep gratitude to these restaurateurs for replacing the previous tenant, Rascals (a singles bar with food less complex than the nachos at Cineplex Odeon and a clientele that had cornered the market on drop-shouldered leather jackets). But the focal point of Cena should be the singular confluences arising from the pots and pans of celebrated Canadian chef Normand Laprise. From the bland décor, you'd never guess Laprise is a man whose palate is fortuitously, famously atypical. Imagine being invited into Wonderland only to discover that Alice and the cards have been busy painting the roses taupe.
To the room's credit, its lighting is flattering, not clinical; the seating is comfortable and spacious rather than cubicled. The sane acoustics alleviate both the need to shout and the fear that everything you say will be repeated by a neighboring diner at his water cooler tomorrow. The staff members are attentive, informative, and opinionated. It's obvious that they're proud to serve Laprise's cooking and that they want you to like it -- and understand it -- as well.
Their concern is not ungrounded. Laprise's talent can be too easily overlooked. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, and Eric Ripert (of Le Bernardin) are masters who revel in big flavors, often highlighting not just one but several in a dish, setting them off like a series of delicious explosions. The pleasure of Laprise's dishes is derived not from fireworks but from his seamless blending of disparate elements. The flavors are faintly layered but almost indistinguishable, resulting in something you can't quite put your finger on (although you'll want to put your fork back in it again). What you're most aware of when you taste his poached skate is not the chilled sake in the base, or the yellow tomatoes and arugula underneath, or even the blackberries that seem gathered from left field, but a veil of brightening sweet acidity that envelops the skate's nutty flavor, producing a surprisingly smooth sensation that's fresh and new. The smokiness of velvety foie gras is not set in contrast with macerated plums, shallots, pumpkin-seed oil, and artichokes. Instead, the spikiness of those four ingredients turn the liver into something less languid and more substantial, a gutsy foie gras.
The risk, however, is great when the chef intends for each dish to resonate as one shimmering, harmonious chord. When it works, as in a spice-lacquered smoked salmon with wasabi, yellow beets, and daikon, it's a bull's-eye. But when it misses, as in a soy-marinated beef tataki with a flavorless raspberry emulsion, it's obvious to even the least sensitized diner that the dish has fallen flat. Luckily, the sumptuous triumphs greatly outnumber the failed attempts. Smoked salmon has rarely tasted this airy and sweet. Shavings of foie gras lovingly temper the often gruff woodiness of cauliflower in an irresistible soup. The sweetness of grilled peppers adds such a buoyant note to a crab summer roll, each bite tastes as refreshing as a handful of grapes.
An expertly cooked grilled Chilean sea bass at lunch (served at the café) is served with just enough balsamic-lovage vinegar that it's not eclipsed by baby beets and fennel. In the evening, rabbit loin becomes a light summer dish when grilled with lovage and thyme.Woody spruce tips and sautéed chanterelles neutralize the gaminess of a tender venison. Black beans, cumin, jalapeño, arugula, and bacon may be the best things that ever happened to a rosemary-braised halibut. Busy? No, just bracingly luscious and surprisingly balanced. And keys to the executive washroom have been handed out for ideas less riveting than Laprise's spicy crisp lobster with a spiky risotto of sorrel, tomatoes, and Parmesan.
But resignation is all that is tendered by caramelized kumquats that obfuscate a delicate breast of duck. Under the weight of the wild mushrooms, gnocchi, grilled fennel, and basil oil, opaline scallops simply disappear. A salmon tartare at lunch has as little flavor as salad-bar sushi.
The complementary delicacies provided by Laprise's pastry chef, Sara Spearin, yield the same polarized results. A rapturous fig tart is well met with chocolate-ginger ice cream. A flourless chocolate cake eschews the density that would please chocoholic purists, a concession made, it seems, so the dessert would better suit the accompanying compote of cherries. The strawberry-and-mascarpone frozen parfait provided a satiating end to the meal, a rare feat for a semifreddo. But a chocolate-pistachio-lemon cake serves up each element in such a faint state that a scoop of pistachio ice cream is left to dominate.
Laprise hasn't been here very long, but after tasting four weeks of his ever-improving menu, I expect the lineup will eventually include nothing but blue-ribbon winners (even if this does clash with the décor). And if it's arrogant to expect a Benjamin Moore overhaul, one adjustment the management can make is to its appetizer-portion size: You can forget about sharing, which is a shame, because cooking this deft deserves the appreciation of an entire table. But the two spring rolls are about an inch long. Beef tataki consists of three teardrop slices. Dwarfed even further by the house's enormous china, the portions are sure to inspire greed, but for the wrong reasons. Frankly, if you could eat this well at your desk, you'd never leave the office.
Cena, 12 East 22nd Street (505-1222). Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; the café is open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. A.E, M.C., V.