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Not Tony Enough

Restaurant row used to be more about plucky waiters than daring menus. Now comes crowd-pleasing District. The food's good, but where's the drama?

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A statue of that patroN saint of the American musical stands in the heart of Times Square, at the very spot for which he penned "Give My Regards to Broadway." Yet it's hard to notice that bronze George M. Cohan these days, dwarfed as he is by a block-long billboard with a giraffe proclaiming the imminent opening of the world's largest Toys 'R' Us. Sadly, as one watches the visiting hordes descending upon Madame Tussaud's and the WWF café, it's difficult to imagine that there's anyone who comes to the Theatre District solely to see a play anymore.

But for years, the magic that came before the curtain call was what drove folks to this area. It not only defined their experience here but spawned a unique dining amalgam known as the theater district restaurant. What you found on the menus at Joe Allen, Charlie's, and Ted Hook's Backstage, among others, actually wasn't much more complex than WWF's fare. But food wasn't necessarily the draw. Rather, the attraction was the All About Eve-ian fix of being surrounded by spotlit theater people and posters: the rush of being waited on by broad-shouldered future chorus-line members and soap-opera stars, listening to a God-I-hope-I-get-it ingenue standing in the curve of a baby grand sing "Time Heals Everything," or having, as I once did, the great good fortune to sit at a table next to Sylvia Miles -- accompanied by six mousse-tressed young lotharios -- as she told a black waiter at Joe Allen that she liked her coffee the way she liked her men, and hear the waiter reply, "I'm sorry, Ms. Miles, we don't serve gay coffee." No one at Madame Tussaud's is likely to ever say anything that memorable.

If you are the type for whom seeing the original production of Company remains a life-changing experience, you lived for this sort of thing. So it's only natural to walk into District, suddenly be engulfed by David Rockwell's artful use of behind-the-proscenium paraphernalia, and swear that there's a future Bonnie Franklin working here who's gonna sing "Applause" atop a table for four sometime before dessert. The leather hoisting straps cleverly swagged like curtains and the glass panels, frosted to depict crossing spotlights, practically demand this kind of over-the-top response. Unfortunately, no grand performance ever materializes. Mind you, the staff is sweet-tempered, but all remains calm and kind, not kinetic.

Nor does District's menu make any attempt to put on a show. Chef-owner Sam De Marco (who also owns First and Merge) is an ambitious, enthusiastic though erratic chef who does share one trait with the great George M. Cohan: an eagerness to please. If you're an indulgent eater who hasn't yet OD'd on foie gras, truffles, and Osetra caviar, the Luxury Box section of District's menu offers it to you every which way but goose (the foie gras is Hudson Valley duck). On the regular menu, De Marco's inclusion of spunky mackerel in his ceviche raises it above the too-genial norm. A roasted pear stuffed with blue cheese and splashed with a port-wine-laced vinaigrette produces an enticingly light beignet. Citrus, butter, and fennel foam work in concert, rather than at odds, on a sweet hunk of lobster. And a champagne vinaigrette tosses a chicory salad way above the ordinary.

But De Marco loves the salt shaker, sabotaging a hearty duck-and-turnip ragu (already sprinkled with rather sharp prosciutto on a chestnut fettuccine) as well as a too-dense truffle vinaigrette over a beef carpaccio. Potato-leek chowder is pleasing, with warm oysters hiding in the broth. But the first time I tried the cauliflower custard, it lacked flavor after the pungent caviar-flecked scallop was eaten off the top -- though on a second try, a week ago, it tasted rich and woody.

De Marco has a couple of temptingly clever nightly specials for two to share. The cassoulet is smoky and filling but a bit of a mess. Tokyo Roast -- a loglike construction of fish (swordfish) wrapped around fish (salmon) wrapped around fish (tuna) -- is a bit like the sushi that ate Cleveland, but the tuna is lean and rich, the swordfish is flaky, and the accompanying bed of fried rice is just right. Saturday's porterhouse is delicious, and Sunday's roast chicken is equally excellent -- so why is the regular menu's salt-rubbed sirloin tough, dry, and inferior? How come a chicken-leg confit crisp as a Stoppard diatribe is accompanied by cannelloni gummier than Lloyd Webber's love songs?

Seared cod comes with a soothing pocket of brandade, and roast pork has the pleasure of both brash sauerkraut and toddy-soaked prunes for company. Venison paired with Bombay-gin sauce doesn't work, though. And one night diver scallops with braised endive vanish in such a flash that all a nose-powdering dinner guest comes back to is a lovely, lonely pile of truffle-whipped potatoes. Another night, however, the scallops are so bland that only the potatoes disappear.

De Marco is full of ideas, however. Everything on his well-priced lunch menu is served in pairs: Black-bean soup and spicy seafood tacos, Cobb salad and Kentucky fried quail, and crispy oysters and seared tuna with sesame noodles all share the stage happily. Matzo-ball soup and turkey club, potato pierogi and brisket, buffalo wings and mini-burgers, on the other hand, are mismatched. And District's desserts, save the apple galette, also need a little drama.

Is it fair to impose such high standards on a restaurant just because of a location and a name? Maybe not, but what do you want from a guy who saw the musical Carrie twice and still wants Times Square to be more about plays and players than about PlayStation 2? De Marco's District could be an award winner. And he doesn't have to add a piano, or Bonnie Franklin. All he has to add is consistency, and he'll be playing my song.

District 130 West 46th Street (212-485-2999). Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, every night 5:30 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $10 to $17, entrées, $22 to $35. All major credit cards.


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