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The Wasteland

Once again the question must be asked: Can serious diners find bliss north of 61st Street on the West Side? Is the pope Italian?

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Although I've lived in New York City on and off for two decades, that's not nearly long enough to appreciate the depth of the giant culinary trench that runs from the banks of the Hudson River across, say, 61st Street to Central Park. South of this chasm lies the twinkling fairyland that is gastronomic Manhattan, from Jean Georges to Nobu. To the north, to hear the locals tell it, is Siberia itself, a wasteland of Chinese delivery joints, Cubano pork parlors, and a dwindling, though transcendent, roster of delicatessens. No one perpetuates this myth more than Upper West Siders themselves. Maybe they've been to Picholine once, and Cafe Luxembourg a handful of times, but otherwise they have jobs to hold down and lots of children's homework to do. If they're real old-timers, their gastronomic touchstones may be Barney Greengrass, or the original Hunan Balcony, on Broadway and 98th street. Drag them downtown for a fancy meal, and they're prone to rub their eyes like Rip Van Winkle and utter phrases like "Nine bucks for dessert! Zowee, that's steep!"

An Upper West Side friend of mine said those exact words the other day, but we weren't downtown this time; we were at Marika, one of the more ambitious dining establishments to open up between the river and the park in some time. The restaurant occupies a 10,000-square-foot space along 70th Street, next to Cafe Luxembourg itself. Over the years, this address has been a notorious gourmet dead zone (it's housed a kosher sports bar, among other doomed ventures), and the owners, Marika Somerstein and Don Evans, have gone to great expense to obliterate any trace of the previous occupants. The old façade has been replaced with blocks of opaque green glass. The bar runs between a café and a mod lounge area, and is bottom-lit in fluorescent shades of lime. There's a flat-screen TV over the bar (and over each urinal in the men's room too), and the dining room is decked out in a pale, vaguely Scandinavian palette, with flame-red banquettes, several private dining rooms walled in glass, and a distant, glassed-in kitchen.

Mr. Upper West Side seemed a little bedazzled by all these effects, but I thought they felt vaguely off-key, like dining in the stateroom of some high-tech Croatian cruising vessel. Not that I've ever been aboard a Croatian cruise ship, but I'd imagine it's an eclectic, occasionally bumpy, though not unpleasant experience, which is more or less the tone of things at Marika. The waiters are dressed like blackjack dealers, in weirdly monogrammed vests with big square buttons, and they appear (as on a cruise ship) to come from every corner of the globe. The menu, as conceived by chef Joel Somerstein -- Ms. Somerstein's step-son, and formerly a chef at the Hotel Pierre and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Lafayette -- is a mix of standard dishes (free-range chicken, sweetbreads, salmon with potato blinis) with a smattering of international tastes. The wine list includes a vintage from Lubbock, Texas, of all places, and inspecting it before dinner, you half expect to see a crooner emerge from the merry, cruise-ship crowd and burst into song.

Upper West Siders may not be practiced restaurant diners, but, like survivalists on a desert island, many are expert cooks. One discerning neighborhood chef dismissed her overambitious oyster appetizer (topped with drips of Sevruga caviar, in a tepid sake glaze) as "very cooking-school." Another avid cookbook scholar declared that his tuna tartare, mixed, fusion-style, with sesame oil (on the café menu only), was an example of "a lot of good ingredients put to bad use." You could say the same of chef Somerstein's appetizers in general, only one of which -- a Stouffer's-like concoction of smoked-chicken risotto -- was downright bad. My tuna carpaccio (with overrefrigerated tobiko sushi rolls and a tangy wasabi dipping sauce) was decent in an unspectacular way. Ditto the vodka-cured salmon with lemon-flavored crème fraîche and potato blinis, and the restaurant's signature crispy sweetbreads, which were tender, generously proportioned, and accompanied by parsley dumplings and a nice mushroom ragout -- but not very crispy at all.

The best entrées at Marika were the simpler ones, like a plump free-range chicken cooked in a rich Cabernet sauce, and a big, salty piece of skate, lightly sautéed with hunks of freshly roasted artichoke and drizzled with caper butter. A fillet of beef emerged from the kitchen nicely charred on a delicious cake of potatoes and wild mushrooms, but a fancy concoction called "three preparations of lamb" (rack of lamb, stuffed loin, and braised leg, with olive-flavored potatoes) seemed more or less like a sophisticate's version of lamb stew. There were several overwrought items like this on the menu, and they tended to work better when you deconstructed them with a fork. A strange roulade of smoked and fresh-cooked salmon with savoy cabbage and crushed potatoes in a light caraway broth seemed a little less strange when you pulled the two preparations of fish apart. My sea scallops were pinkish in the middle and expertly seared, although their full flavor didn't emerge until I'd disengaged them from a mound of cloyingly sweet parsnip purée.

Not that these issues seemed to faze anyone dining at Marika. On the contrary, the place was mostly packed, with elderly first-date couples and gaggles of neighborhood bon vivants out for a night on the town. The atmosphere seemed to invigorate Mr. Upper West Side, who reveled in a strangely tasty vegetarian entrée (a "napoleon" of eggplant caviar, goat cheese, and chick-pea polenta, among other items) before diving into the selection of $9 desserts. Ten dollars will buy you a decent pistachio soufflé at Marika, and there's also a deliciously gingery variety of spice cake on the menu, with caramel-roasted apples and Calvados ice cream. My personal favorite was the tangerine granité, a mound of soothing, tropically flavored sorbets on a bed of crushed orange ice. Mr. Upper West Side, after much deliberation, chose the dark-chocolate cake, a decorative dish that came with a crisp, powdery exterior and the kind of gooey, liquid center you rarely see so far uptown. By my jaded downtown calculation, it took him roughly 30 seconds to devour it whole.

Marika, 208 West 70th Street (212-875-8600). Open every night for dinner 5 p.m. to midnight, brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Appetizers, $9 to $15; entrées, $18 to $34; in the café, appetizers, $8 to $10; entrées, $12 to $18. A.E., M.C., V.


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