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In Living Color

Rising from the gray mediocrity of Mortimer's, Orsay is an unexpected oasis of comfort and culinary verve in the stolid heart of the Upper East Side.

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The space at the northeast corner of 75th and Lex sat dark and abandoned for more than a year, a blemish on the rosy-cheeked complexion of the Upper East Side. Hordes of locals openly mourned their banishment from this site, giving it the epic gravity of Clubhouse Lost. But driving by the desolate storefront lifted my spirits almost as high as seeing the restoration of Grand Central Terminal. Ahhh. Never again to have my neighborhood associated with that boarding-school slop called chicken hash. Never again to acknowledge that a room as comfortable and flattering as La Guardia's baggage claim is regarded as a bastion of urban chic. Never again to be trapped in a space orchestrated by a man who thrived on spite and self-loathing like a vegetarian downing a T-bone at Tad's Steak House on the sly. Never to hear anyone offer to "meet me at Mortimer's" again. What joy. What rapture.

So willing was I to proclaim this spot high burial ground for everything wrong with social interaction on the Upper East Side -- the land that fun forgot -- that I was about as eager to welcome Orsay to the neighborhood as Martha Stewart's Westport neighbors probably would be to welcome her back into theirs. I chuckled at the delays, peering into the gutted space and wondering whether they had contacted Temple Emanuel with respect to dybbuk removal. I sneered at the deliberately unsubtle Tandy Craft antiquing-kit-stained exterior, which resembled one of those newly remodeled Boulevard Montparnasse bistros designed to feed tourists by the busload. Objective as one tries to be -- and as much as I admire owner Jean Denoyer's perseverance, and almost blush at the guilelessness of co-owner and general manager François Latapie's charm -- I went to Orsay with my back up so high you couldn't tell the length of my sideburns.

Living up here for so long, however, I realize there are some things you can't expect a restaurant to alter. The Upper East Side is the most self-contained section of town, one where the residents not only prefer remaining safe in their gardens but really don't appreciate strangers from around town coming to smell the roses. Consequently, nightlife has always been as ethnically diverse as a squash tournament at the New York Athletic Club (though, oddly enough, it is less likely to be segregated by age). So it was no surprise on our first night at Orsay to count nineteen blue blazers with brass buttons (take that, Helmut Lang!), all but one worn with either khakis (no flat-fronts) or gray flannels (in August), all with loafers (seven with tassels), about half with no socks. After 29 years of living in New York style's black hole, you learn to look beyond. And unexpectedly and blissfully, what you see at Orsay is an environment as buoyant as any I've encountered in this neighborhood.

Close your eyes and it almost sounds like the meatpacking district. Open them and . . . well, at least you can see that Orsay is quite the stunning illusion: a beautifully executed mahogany-paneled, swirl- and flourish-laden, Art Nouveau-drenched transformation of a former Skinner box, with floridly romantic plaster arches framing a ceiling that might inspire more raised eyebrows if it weren't for all the Botox below. Besides, it's not like there is nothing to see atop the tablecloths. For all the decorative extravagance of the makeover, and a staff whose congeniality, intelligence, and deportment exceed those of many they are called upon to serve, Orsay's most significant mood modification may be its rejection of the neighborhood's bland, boarding-school palate. La Goulue's chef, Philippe Schmit, has fashioned a menu that, though extensive, is as clean-lined as Orsay's glass is beveled but has just enough fiery blasts to wrench patrons out of their complacency, just as surely as if they had to fix a flat tire.

Though there are fresh oysters, sweetly sharp glistening Spanish mackerel, a brawny ostrich carpaccio spiked by a soy vinaigrette, lush pillows of black plums tenderly buffeting sautéed foie gras, and a wonderfully spicy trio of herb-stuffed summer vegetables for appetizers, the freshest, most appealing beginnings on Orsay's menu are a series of tartares. Beads of fresh tuna are briskly splashed with cilantro and tequila. Fragrant salmon is enhanced by Stilton and daubs of Yorkshire pudding (the gravlax that comes pepper-encrusted and with vanilla may sound more appealing, but it's too reticent and demure). There are four beef tartares. The classic has enough onion and capers not to disappoint, another gets an exotic cast from curry and coconut, a third has the bracing lift of harissa and fennel, while the last is warmly comforted by pesto and Parmesan.

Not everything works as well: There is the powerful aroma of smoked duck dominating a goat-cheese-and-potato tart, peppered and moist Maine crabmeat is backhanded to oblivion by a scoop of tomato sorbet, and a potentially lovely goat-cheese ravioli can't come up for air because of too much olive oil. Let's see how long calf's-feet-and-tongue cake can maintain a footing in the land of lobster salad. Try it. You may not like it. But try it.

Speaking of lobster, a whole one showered with tabbouleh and arugula will cure you if that tongue cake leaves you mute. Thai bouillabaisse is equally lush and vibrant with cilantro and lemongrass. The kitchen runs out of short ribs too often, and there's a good reason why. But the pork chop in a feisty honey barbecue sauce is a formidable second choice. Of the grilled fish, the mullet with tapénade was the strongest, with only a little lemon needed to bolster the nutlike meat. Steamed bass with gazpacho held more interest than the tuna niçoise. Though stuck in an odd construction, the scallop "lasagna" is excellent. Of the three steaks on the menu, the hanger steak fits the mood best, except that it doesn't come with French fries. Order them. As for chicken, there is only a roasted breast with succulent burnished-umber skin and a lovely corn ragu. If you miss your hash, you'll have to bring your own battery-operated grinder.

Desserts are pretty delightful all around. Chocolate tart should stop being a special this instant: It's too good to ever go into exile. A lovely fresh-fig tart has a bonus of tamarillo sorbet. Try paying attention to the roasted peaches after you've tasted the sweet-corn ice cream that accompanies them. The chocolate-caramel bombe is nowhere near as complicated as its explanation on the menu, and a raspberry napoleon is simple -- as it should be.

In case you haven't guessed, East Siders don't like to share. So your friends who live here are not going to tell you about Orsay. Or they'll say it's no big deal. Don't worry -- they'll meet you down at Pastis. No way: Get in a cab. Come up. They'll get over it. You may even like it up here, if only to eat, or at least antagonize the spirits. Glenn Bernbaum, who owned Mortimer's, loathed "out-of-towners" in his space. He'd have hated the whole town's coming to 75th and Lex. If for no other reason, come for that one.

Orsay, 1057 Lexington Avenue, at 75th Street (212-517-6400). Lunch, Monday through Thursday noon-3 p.m., Friday through Sunday till 4 p.m.; dinner, Sunday through Thursday 5:30 p.m.-midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m. Appetizers, $7 to $25; entrées, $13 to $28. All major credit cards.

For the past several months, all around town, with horrifying and painful frequency, I have found myself sitting next to a table where at least one diner -- though more often several -- has chosen to speak at a volume that might qualify for hog calling at the Oklahoma State Fair. These people were not drunk. Or angry. Rather, their window-rattling pitch is what they considered to be the acceptable level for dinner conversation. They were out, they had space and a story to tell, and they wanted to be heard. And so they were -- by virtually everyone in the room.

Perhaps we've discovered yet another outlet for entitlement, or all that bellowing into cell phones (often at that next table as well) has set a new standard for conversational tone. Or maybe we've all read one too many times that we New Yorkers use restaurants as our dining rooms. Whatever the reason, too many people are talking as if they were in their own homes. Well, you're not.

Restaurants are public places, full of people who don't know you and -- no offense -- probably don't care to. It's bad enough how much said at our own tables with our own friends winds up feeling like way too much information. We don't need to hear your sagas, deal closers, breakups, conquests, family troubles, or heartfelt admissions, too. If I want to hear jokes, I'll go to Caroline's. Mike Meyer's Linda Richman said it best: Talk amongst yourselves. It's a good idea -- especially if you're not as funny as he is.


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