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Snap, Crackle, Pop

Roy Liebenthal's Pop has all his regular accoutrements; ample attitude, seductive lighting, plus food that's almost as tempting as its patrons.

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I have a question for all the Prada-toting, J.P. Tod-scuffing, Helmut-zipping hungry ones who stand outside Veruka and Asia de Cuba, all those places that make you mark time on the sidewalk while the genius with the clipboard searches for your misspelled name:

Are you nuts? Do you really enjoy starting off your night reduced to emulating a Dickensian street urchin, or did you simply pawn your self-respect for that pair of Gucci embroidered jeans? There are more than 10,000 restaurants in New York, and most of them would be more than happy to agreeably honor your reservation under an air-conditioned roof. True, almost none of them have Veruka's up-from-the-floor floodlighting, which turns its patrons into a cast virtually camera-ready for a remake of Nosferatu, or Asia's nostalgic-for-Dole-canned-pineapple cuisine, but surely somewhere there's a place for you where you don't have to put up with faux-velvet rope tricks. Studio 54 is dead, you know. Deal with it.

Even if for no other reason than the absence of checkpoint chumps, it's a pleasure to open Pop's front door. Okay, so you can barely notice the name on it. And the maître d' is wearing headphones. Why? Hipness requires accessories, I guess. Frankly, I think he's listening to the Yankees game, but his voice is so soft and welcoming, his smile so easy and unforced, it's hard to sustain the desire to sever him from his battery pack.

And though the room is peppered with folks as deliciously desirable as you are, Pop's overall-clad staff isn't fazed, intimidated, or playing favorites. In fact, for all that's been written about Pop's expansive décor (Ali Tayar's interior is an homage to the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at JFK) and owner Roy Liebenthal's desire to put the "cuisine" of Café Tabac and the Lemon behind him, Pop's shiny-eyed, smart band of waitpersons (and a sommelier as congenial as he is knowing) is the place's most consistent treat.

Though it doesn't quite live up to its lofty press, Pop's décor doesn't deserve to be dismissed as easily as most air terminals. Actually, Tayar does himself a disservice. As gravity-defying as the original TWA terminal was, it was never a warm place, or a particularly flattering one. And although the cacophony of chattering patrons ricochets noisily off Pop's floating red metal ceiling, the space below is comfortable, like an effortlessly Moderne rec room, and lit more benevolently than Lauren Bacall being shot by Harper's Bazaar.

The menu is also ingenious, but not nearly as effortless. Liebenthal certainly upped the ante by hiring Brian Young, a talented sous-chef from Le Bernardin, and when Young's dishes echo the clarity of his alma mater, Pop's kitchen soars past its contemporaries' intentions. Crisp wrapped shrimp rolls have snap and body, a soft-shell crab has an eerily addictive ingredient laced into its crackling peppered batter, and coarsely shaved clam tartar almost vibrates in its invigorating bath of ginger, chives, and pepper oil. As precious as it is to call an entrée "a confit of swordfish," this dish is still a marvelous treatment of a fish rarely known for succulence. Wonderfully tender, it's thoughtfully accompanied by barley and roasted mushrooms in truffle oil. Chilean sea bass is roasted in a clear gazpacho, each orange or yellow tomato squirting sweetness onto its charge.

But like many less-seasoned cooks, Young forgets that solid editing is often as admirable, and as satisfying, as virtuosity. Too often, he complicates swell ideas by letting random fancies find their way onto the plate. Portobello-and-sweetbread dumplings mimic the harmony of a man running into his ex-mother-in-law. An herb-stuffed loin of pork is expertly cooked -- and there couldn't be enough vidalia-onion rings -- but the licorice-caramel sauce is a scraper-offer. The other white meat can't handle such sticky competition. Armagnac sauce does similar damage to a red and hearty sirloin flanked by a tasty potato cake laced with short-rib shards. Onions melting into a shredded pot-roast-like lamb are so much more fun to eat than the tasteful but blasé rack sitting atop them. And a breast of duck has its sprightly, crisp skin dunked in a cherry sauce dense enough to pour over ice cream. These are crimes of overeagerness, though. Time can work wonders.

So would one slightly sneaky trick Liebenthal might pull on Young. Ration his salt. The only trouble with the Sauternes vinaigrette dressing a bright pecorino salad, the verjuice vinaigrette on frisee, the darkly seared out-of-shell lobster, the basil risotto alongside it (though it does belong on another plate), and a deeply juicy breast of chicken with chanterelles is an overpowering shower of sodium. However, if Liebenthal is hesitant to do that, he can always wait until Young has to contend with the low-sodium weekenders coming in from Plainview. And they will be discovering the place just about . . . now.

Save for the bittersweet chocolate cake, which is happily free of goo, desserts feel like they're the victims of a dating service with a computer glitch. A smooth lemon-yogurt charlotte gains no strength paired with a blueberry compote. Apricot browned-butter tart is just dandy. The raspberry ice cream next to it is just useless. One of the trio of caramel desserts would suffice. But they have an odd and unexpectedly neutralizing effect on each other. You find yourself finishing none of them and begging for vanilla ice cream (of course, this is a kitchen more likely to be serving halvah as the flavor du jour). Strawberry cream cake could have lived happily ever after with a Sauternes sabayon. But a lemon-verbena crème brûlée had to make it an uncomfortable threesome.

But better too much than too little. And Pop could get away doing a lot less. Already, it's a happy place that seems to have found its rhythm. If Liebenthal and Young are serious about their goals, Pop will only get better. And if its competitors were wise, they'd note that a velvet rope generates only notoriety and people seeking fresh venues for abuse. But when it comes to building a successful restaurant, there's no ingredient more important than charm. I guess that's why I like it here. Even if they won't give me my own headphones.

Pop, 127 Fourth Avenue, near 14th Street (767-1800). Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. A.E., M.C., V.


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