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Sea Change

Bayard's isn't just fitted out like a high-end yacht; with recently arrived chef Eberhard Müller at the helm, the cuisine ebbs and flows like the tide.

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Alan King and Myron Cohen used to joke about appearing on them. Woody Allen cringes at the sight of one. And I can't recall any of Philip Roth's protagonists ever owning any. In short, Jews don't normally do boats. No, not boats as in Holland America Line's fleet of titanic pleasure crafts, complete with ice rink, squash courts, and more skirted buffet tables than there are change-of-life blondes up in the disco. I mean boats with jibs and masts and lots of big knots, where you can feel the roll of each wave and no one on deck has to be told which is the starboard side.

Is it any wonder, then, that after a tour of India House, home of Bayard's, with its extensive and enviable collection of nineteenth-century ship models, prints, paintings, captain's wheels, figureheads, and seafaring memorabilia, I sit at my table like a Moonie at High Mass. What am I doing here without brass buttons, let alone a blazer? The husband of my lunch partner comes from a family that actually helped found the private club that dines here at midday -- and I bet all his shirts are monogrammed. Naturally, she relaxes into her barrel chair as if it were a velvet chaise. I'm still all shoulders-on-ears over the state-house austerity of the place, like a set for a road company of 1776. And yet, with its rugged, wide-planked floors, broad, grandly symmetrical mahogany staircase, elegant trappings, and oversize tables, the room is earnestly devoted to providing a diner with space and is peopled by a staff with effortless good manners. Perhaps I'm the one who's adrift here, after all, the one who needs to get my sea legs and look at Bayard's in a new light.

That light comes after sundown, when the dining room is open to the public. Then Bayard's takes on more drama, not only because the pale lemon walls reflect a delicately flattering sheen, but because Eberhard Müller, formerly of Lutèce, has taken over the kitchen. For while Luc Dendievel's original menu had several choices -- like whole roasted foie gras, and root soup with truffles -- that seemed completely at home in the solidly anchored room, too often his dishes were knocked off course by a surfeit of sweetness: apples, dates, passion fruit, figs. Dessert became redundant.

Müller's choices are less ornate, less feminine, and more daring. He leans toward dishes others have let us take for granted, as if to see if he can get us to sit up straight in those barrel chairs after all. That he often succeeds is remarkable, considering his inducements are such chestnuts as Dover sole and rack of lamb. Unfortunately, his kitchen is not as steady as the room. In fact, the erraticism is at times as startling as it would be if Metallica were brought in to play dinner music.

Buoyed one night by a first round of feisty tuna tartare spiked with toasted sesame seeds and mint, a warmly golden quail against a soft, faintly sweet bank of Savoy cabbage, chanterelles coated in a light hazelnut vinaigrette, and a hunk of foie gras so lush and meaty as to barely even require the grapes and greens alongside it, four of us sat there childishly giggling at our good fortune, willing -- no, eager -- to forsake great gossip and turn our attention to the bold dynamics of Müller's cooking. Steamed halibut followed, in a broth lavishly specked with tarragon, and all the more impressive for it. Snapper skin was tortilla-crisp on one side, and on the other moist and resting against a luxuriant ragoût of artichoke, carrot, and celery with a brash dash of saffron. The honey-mustard glaze on the rack of lamb was surprisingly balanced, never overpowering the heady flavor of the pink meat or competing with the rich pan juices fortified by root vegetables. The roast duck breast gleaming in a pool of brandied cherry juice made you wish it were a holiday. The poached-pear dessert in spiced wine was luscious (though the caramel ice cream was cloying and unnecessary). After all those false promises other places make when they keep you waiting twenty minutes for a soufflé, Bayard's high-hatted Grand Marnier confection can leave you teary-eyed with gratitude. And the champagne sorbet with apple crisps instigated the same rollicking good spirits that propelled Gigi when she discovered the powers of bubbly.

We stayed until they were just about ready to get out the vacuum cleaners. Ushering us downstairs, Peter Poulakakos, Bayard's gracious owner, said he hoped to see us soon. We couldn't get back fast enough. Who wouldn't want to return to Brigadoon? But somehow this paradise, too, seemed to vanish. The smoked codfish was so drenched in white-truffle oil that the arugula turned tame. Crab salad didn't have the citric flash it had greeted us with at lunch. Lentil soup tasted as if it had been thinned at the last minute: great flavor; no guts. The champagne sauce on the oysters tasted solely of salt.

In fact, salt was the dominant flavor in this next meal, stealing the tenderness of succulent short ribs, sacking the cherries on the now-overcooked duck breast. Veal medallions were obliterated by a cascade of caramelized but briny leeks. Dover sole, however, was lovingly unadorned save for clean lemon-butter sauce. But chicken breast found no savior in its chalky vegetable broth. Chocolate cake was warm, like the menu said. Unfortunately, only that much was true.

When we left Bayard's, I kept turning round and staring back at it, like the French Lieutenant's woman out at an empty harbor, unable to accept that my lovely memory had not returned. But then, sailors will tell you the water cares little for man's rhythms and wants. It will deliver what it wants when it wants. Thus, like the Lieutenant's Woman, I will continue to hope. I must go down to Bayard's again, and find that dreamboat of a meal once more.

Bayard's
One Hanover Square
(212-514-9454). Dinner, Mon.-Sat. 5:30-10 p.m. Lunch is for club members only; appetizers, $9 to $18, entrées, $28 to $38. All major credit cards.


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