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Go Ouest

Thomas Valenti's sublime new Upper West Side outpost should dispel the neighborhood's culinary blues for good. That is, if the locals will let it.

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There are many printed things in life you can be sure of. The New York Post is going to endorse the Republican candidate. Aileen Mehle will regularly sit at dinner next to people you thought died ages ago. And sure as Tavern on the Green buys twinkle lights in bulk, any time someone writes an article about dining on the Upper West Side, the opening paragraph begins with a bemoaning beguine about the lack of worthy places to eat in those environs.

Frankly, the complaint is getting tired. Got a pencil? Cafe Luxembourg, Sarabeth's, Picholine, Nick & Tony's, Good Enough to Eat, Rain, Metisse, Calle Ocho, Jean Georges and Nougatine, Gennaro, Ruby Foo's, Avenue, and Gael's beloved Shun Lee. Okay, so maybe it's not exactly the 8th Arrondissement in Paris, but try tallying up the can't-miss spots in the Garment District, Yorkville, or Murray Hill. Bet you haven't dog-eared those lists in the back of your pocket Zagat's.

The opening of Ouest should shatter the misperception for good, since Thomas Valenti's newest outpost (co-owned with Godfrey Polistina) is polished and appealing enough to prompt twinges of jealousy from other neighborhoods. Designer Peter Neimitz has taken an unwieldy space burdened with shallow balconies, an endless narrow corridor, and a central room with too high a ceiling and, using an Ivy League-ish dark-wood stain and a Tilt-a-Whirl's worth of spherical cherry leather booths, created coves of such intimacy that those who've grown accustomed to communal dining tables may be overcome by an eerie sense of isolation. This is what was once known in the service industry as giving a customer some privacy. Don't fret, you Mercer Kitchen refugees: If it's too much, you can always eat at the bar.

Regardless of where at Ouest you lift a fork, it's noteworthy (as well as celebratory) to see how much culinary baggage the chef has shed in his move uptown. At Alison on Dominick Street, Valenti's dishes would occasionally be undone by his overtly showy intentions; at Cascabel, he sometimes went out of his way to juxtapose never-the-twain-shall-be-eaten combos. Perhaps sensing that here is a neighborhood that customarily has guilt pangs over having forsaken the home-cooked meal, Valenti has focused and honed Ouest's menu to the point where almost every dish resonates with such love-it-in-an-instant flavors that their appeal is likely to mask their degrees of difficulty.

Foie gras agnolotti is one such plate. Valenti's sly pairing of this aromatic meat with a fragrant sauce of leeks and basil comes close to airy bliss. He does it again with sweetly smoked duck breast buttressed by brash bitter greens.

The gravlax is something special: meltingly lush, coated in a sheer veil of caviar and mustard oil, held back from overkill by a rustic chickpea pancake. There's an elegant oyster pan roast with black trumpet mushrooms, a goat-cheese-and-truffle terrine with a bonus of roasted red beets, and a too small, but feisty, disk of pork terrine that would get you good even without the kicker of mustard crust. The too smoky sweet-pea broth needs adjusting, though, if only to highlight its pearls of luscious parmesan custard, as does the goat-cheese ravioli, whose velvety squares are muddled by a dominating pancetta tomato sauce.

The happy news is Valenti's appetizers aren't even his strong suit, not when one gets to delight in the gutsy finish seared tuna acquires with chickpea purée, or to relish an atypically tart tomato-chive broth on a tenderly flaky sautéed skate. He easily passes the neighborhood's stringent roast-chicken-with-mashed-potatoes test. The rabbit is tender but bizarrely taste-free, and the vegetarian millefeuille seems made with less heart and soul. But Valenti's halibut in fava-bean purée, golden roast squab sitting atop roasted-tomato risotto, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with a white-bean purée and peppercorn sauce (the man loves them legumes), short ribs with lush polenta, and a filet mignon in an almost luridly seductive crust of peppered, smoky mushrooms are five persuasive reasons to check Sunday's real-estate section for a classic six on Riverside Drive.

I can't recall the last time I wanted a restaurant to offer more desserts. But with a crackling strawberry-scented rhubarb crisp; a crunchy, citrus-laced raspberry financier; an actually cakey chocolate cake (though here's one vote for an option of banana ice cream); and a sensational crème fraîche panna cotta with fresh passion fruit, Michael Moorhouse exhibits a rare ability to satisfy both a pastry chef's urge for discovery and New Yorkers' lust for solid, third-act gratification.

And yet, I'll bet that Ouest's success will do nothing to change the persistent perception of upper Broadway as the land that fine dining forgot. Because curiously enough, it is not the lack of stimulating destinations after all but the locals' determination to treat every place like it's their own personal hangout, no better than their corner sports bar.

No offense, my Fairway-loving friends, but Ouest is not the Popover Cafe. Despite Ouest's stunningly civilized decision to play soothing jazz and cabaret artists, when the music gets turned up at 10 p.m. the mood recommendation goes unnoticed. Instead, families continue to backslap and high-five across the table. Others bicker as a check for six is split four ways. Finicky diners continuously redesign the menu more thanks to idiosyncrasy than to any doctor's orders.

Sorry, but this is one time when the West Side's fervent egalitarianism is not merely misplaced but dishonoring. I'd lay down money that everyone in the room loves the place. And Valenti's such an eager, earthy guy, he'll brush this criticism off, saying, 'Don't worry, you guys. It's cool.' But it's not. A bit of behavior modification in the presence of real talent is not just a nice gesture. It's deserved. The folks at Ouest are doing something special way uptown, something a lot better than what's under the heat lamp around the corner. They deserve appreciation and respect. And I sure hope they get it.

And I also hope I don't get popcorn dumped on my head the next time I go to Sony Lincoln Square.

Ouest 2315 Broadway, at 84th Street (212-580-8700). Sunday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight. Appetizers, $7 to $12; entrées, $16 to $27. All major credit cards.


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