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Theater in the Ground

Brasserie 8 1/2 is restaurant dining at its most Fellini-esque: a subterranean stage where the scene, not the food, is the main attraction.

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Back in the dim, distant eighties, when the Great Brasserie Plague first swept over Manhattan, I contrived a personal method for separating decent bistro cuisine from the tired, the trendy, and the merely bad. Forget the overhyped platters of moules, I told myself, the precious napkins of frites speckled with sea salt, those smug profiterole desserts with their Odeon-era sharing spoons for three. Concentrate instead on that bellwether of a great brasserie menu: the salad frisée. As any stealthy fat man knows, a nice frisée is as sinful as a good steak, but less weighty. It comes in different variations (bombed with quail eggs, coated in stylish chèvres), but the essential elements are hard to fake. You need frisée (or chicory) leaves that are crisp but not too bitter. You need a drizzling of warm bacon and some good Roquefort cheese. You also need delicately fried croutons and sweet cloves of garlic, and if all these ingredients are not perfectly aligned, the salad will fail, and the brasserie will, too.

But then, Brasserie 8 1/2 is not really a brasserie at all. It's the city's latest adventure in showpiece dining, a glittery planetarium of a space in the basement of Gordon Bunshaft's curving office tower, off the corner of 57th and Fifth. The owner, Sheldon Solow (he owns the building too), appears to have the highest stylistic aspirations. He's stocked the establishment with his own Matisse prints and a multimillion-dollar glass mural by Fernand Léger, depicting socialistic workers waving their arms in the air. He's hired the architect Hugh Hardy to approximate a kind of neo-Saarinen airport-lounge vibe, complete with a herd of dimpled waiting chairs and two split-level bars colored in tones of mackerel and tangerine. "Frisée aux Lardons, Quail Eggs" is the menu's queenly description of my favorite dish, but to get to it, you have to jump through all sorts of hoops.

Begin with the restaurant's entryway, a twirling staircase of exactly 25 steps. At Restaurant Associates' other new property, Brasserie, in the Seagram Building, a luminous green walkway deposits diners into the main room. At the entrance to Brasserie 8 1/2, a greeter waits at a polished wood console, behind a wall of curving glass. Below the staircase, down in the restaurant gloom, more greeters lurk, dressed merrily in black ninja-style outfits. "It's your runway moment," whispered one fashion-attuned friend as she watched my self-consciously mincing descent. I was followed down the steps by a group of dazed Japanese ladies, then Regis Philbin and his wife, grinning pained leprechaun grins. In the early evening, tourists along 57th Street sometimes press their noses to the glass wall, which, depending on your mood, makes you feel either vaguely regal or like a performing creature in some strange Sea World lagoon.

The French intended brasserie cuisine to be elegant and simple, eaten in casual surroundings at all hours of the day. But in this kind of high-style, hothouse atmosphere, palates can get addled and confused, and good food disappears in the shuffle. To compensate, chef Julian Alonzo has crowded his menu with big, steroid versions of brasserie originals. The frogs' legs (served tempura-style at the bar) were farm-raised in Florida, according to my bartender, and looked like they'd been transplanted from reasonably sized chickens. My onion soup gratinée was thick as lava and arrived in a bowl the size of a small spittoon. "You don't eat our onion soup; you conquer it," the waiter said. Ditto the côte de boeuf, a 32-ounce brontosaurus joint ($34, plus the de rigueur marrow bone) smothered in a soupy Pinot Noir glaze. "It's as big as your head," whispered my wife, watching as the dish was hoisted onto our table.

Some of these jumbo items succeed better than others. My côte de boeuf was so marbled with fat, I had to roll it aside after a bite or two. Of the five steak courses (including sirloin with frites, hanger, and grilled filet mignon), the best was a brick cut of Black Angus, although I couldn't finish that either. The requisite towers of fruits de mer ($27, plus an additional $15 for the Maine lobster) seemed lavish enough, but if you want just a taste of grandeur, try the jumbo Gulf shrimp (no bargain at $3 apiece), which come regally planted in a salver of crushed ice, with a dipping bowl of creamy wasabi mayonnaise. Overeager desserts like the caramelized banana split and a chocolate crème brûlée smothered in rose oil worked better as pieces of foodie art than as things to eat. After my bruiser main courses, I preferred the soothing lychee soup, with a disc of blackberry sorbet in the middle, or the nice fig tart, stippled with bits of honeycomb on top.

There are a few other surprises buried deep in Chef Alonzo's overstuffed menu. The Thursday plat du jour is suckling pig cooked to crackly perfection, with a smoky hint of apples. The fromage burger is worth ordering for the meat alone, despite soggy onion rings and a muffling brioche bun, and the chef's jumbo crab cakes (lunch only) are enhanced by a sweet dusting of crushed cornflakes. High rollers can wash these delicacies down with bottles of Opus One ($145 for the '96 vintage) from a list of more than 150 wines. There are legions of sherries and armagnacs, and ten fancy cognacs, including a glass of Fussigny Très Vieille for $35. Elbowing for space among rows of frat boys at the tangerine-colored bar, I counted twenty vintages of single-malt scotch and sampled odd designer cocktails with names like Velvet Hammer (Tia Maria, Cointreau, cream) and Ginger Cosmo (ginger-infused Vox vodka, Cointreau, cranberry juice, lime).

And what about the regal frisée? It appeared one evening after my woozy encounter with a White Chocolate Martini, a wicked drink made with Chopin vodka and icy-clear crème de cacao. In the soft spaceship glow of our banquette, the salad looked ghostly pale and as big as a hair net. It was plated upright, on a giant white platter, and its interior was speckled with peppery lardons and smudges of warm Roquefort. The quail eggs were raw, not cooked, then broken into small toast rounds of brioche, and when you mixed them into the light vinaigrette, they had a gentle binding effect. "This is really working out well for me," said another delicate fashionista friend as she prodded the giant leaves with a fork, "but do we really need three quail eggs?" The answer to this cosmic question is no, probably not. But the dish tasted good, even in my addled state, and in a joint with a twirling staircase, two Star Wars cocktail bars, and a lounge space shaped like some strange Stanley Kubrick fantasia, who's really counting?

Brasserie 8 1/2, 9 West 57th Street (212-829-0812). Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Sunday till 10 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $16; entrées, $18 to $34. All major credit cards.


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