When it's their birthday, normal people get all excited about going out for dinner. But since that's what I usually do while they're at home watching The West Wing, guess where I'd like to be on my big day? Unfortunately, my partner can't cook, and most of my friends use their ovens to store either their irons or dog food, so I'm about as likely to be invited anywhere for a home-cooked meal as Lizzie Grubman is to hear a "You go, girl!" at the shore. So out we go. But where? "Oh, you pick," say mes amis. "We wouldn't dream of choosing for you on your birthday." Talk about losing through intimidation. Not only is it my responsibility to find something everyone else thinks is special, and hasn't tried, but it has to be somewhere that I find memorable as well. It turned up in the unlikeliest of places. When June 20 rolled around, I chose to go to Ilo, in the Bryant Park hotel, and even though I knew the people I was going to be celebrating with, the choice turned a planned birthday dinner into a happy surprise.
First of all, just because every third restaurant opening in New York is right beyond a check-in desk, it's not my wont to go trekking through local hotel lobbies. I'm not from out of town. I've witnessed weaker constitutions flail in their attempts to navigate the eddies round W's wavy bar to reach the balmy shores of Todd English's Olives. I heard the first pioneers who crossed the Hudson to eat at Cafeteria ended up speaking in tongues. A communal table anywhere, be it Asia de Cuba or Mercer Kitchen, is my idea of a mess hall in purgatory.
In fact, before Ilo, Geoffrey Zakarian's Town was the only dining room at the inn to successfully establish a separate and un-hostel environment, partially because of David Rockwell's adept and elegant use of a subterranean space. Ilo's more amorphous room works in reverse. David Chipperfield's design hovers over the rear of the Bryant Park lobby, as if its neutrality were meant to suspend you above the goings-on in the front bar. If the space lacks a certain definition, its boundaries are enhanced by a staff that unifies the room by eye contact.
Since I love food, to me the notion that you can have a blast anywhere as long as you are with friends carries less weight than Renée Zellweger. I wanted a great meal. And I'd eaten Rick Laakkonen's food before, at River Café and at Luxe. It was steadfastly professional, like those early Aretha albums on Columbia, a solid, unrisky fit for both of those lunkishly unenchanting rooms (after all: Sit at the River Café with your back to the skyline and see how many glasses of champagne you want to drink).
But you see the world differently when you have a baby, or so my sister tells me. The press materials say Ilo means "a joyous state of being" -- and giving birth to it has clearly put Laakkonen in that state, for there are a buoyancy and breadth to his cooking that weren't there before.
Superlatives are dangerous cards for critics to play, because they can weaken your hand for later games, but I don't remember having a roast duck as gloriously simple and simply glorious. This bird for two has skin as magnificently burnished as George Hamilton's tan, bursting with sweet juices and boasting less fat than a Chinese gymnast.
But don't let my fixation make you pass up the ragout of thick, tender grilled octopus and Manila clams in an oh-so-smooth lemon-thyme broth with a shower of saffron pastina. Or the brisk, airy balance of tuna sashimi and salmon tartare held by fish roe, wasabi essence, and radish. Unbriny salmon, bordered by a red-pepper crème fraîche and white-corn crêpe, is a fresh twist; artichoke soup has just enough earthy texture with summer truffles and mushrooms. A dish called the Tidal Pool has a subtly tinged grace of oysters, urchin, wakame, and wood-ear mushroom, but its ethereal subtlety matches nothing on the menu. More appropriate is a hearty grilled quail with an unexpectedly appealing grounding of white hominy, coriander, and lime, or the duck neck brimming with pâté and smoked beets.
Pan-roasted rabbit in a jus rich with lemon, oregano, and olives is satisfying, even to those still skittish about eating game. Pan-roasted guinea hen, golden as the duck, is sparked by a sauce of tomato and lovage. The contrasts of macerated grapes, arugula purée, and a light Bordelaise reveal shadings of flavor one rarely encounters in poached lobster. Grilled sturgeon is lavishly drenched in black vinegar and eggplant. The pork is too charred, however, the sea scallops are upstaged by the chickpea papardelle, and the rack of lamb is half-thought-out, lacking the kind of identity that sets the rabbit and lobster apart. Laakkonnen's menu's only weakness is that it's afflicted by overkill. There are three additional tasting menus, including one for beef eaters and one for vegetarians, both hampered by monotony. It's too much, and it's unnecessary. Not only would editing sharpen this menu, but considering that this is still a hotel destined for a large out-of-town clientele, some inveterate travelers may need a few less complex alternatives.
Dessert features a dizzying citrus assortment for two, plus six other choices, including strawberry-and-passion-fruit tart, chocolate-mousse timbale, and raspberry-ice-cream-and-peach-sorbet bombe. But for my birthday, my friends had an uncomplicated chocolate cake that was devoured almost before the candles lost smoke. I'd recommend it to anyone on a special night out. For Ilo is something special, worth stepping over luggage and wading through a puddle of Cosmos for, and whether you hail from Gramercy or Graceland, I hope you're able to savor and share Laakkonen & Co.'s hard-won joy. I hope they have as many more birthdays as I plan to have. And if that chocolate cake isn't on the menu the next time I celebrate something there, then I'll just settle for blowing out candles atop a roast duck.
Ilo, 40 West 40th Street; 212-642-2255. Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Appetizers, $12 to $23; entrées, $24 to $38. All major credit cards.