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Man Overboard

A restaurant that looks -- and acts -- like a club, Man Ray is surely a place to see and be seen. But is it a place to eat?

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Choice cut: Man Ray's rack of lamb.  

I don't know about you, but where I come from, the presence of a bouncer at the door of any haute cuisine establishment is an ominous sign. It's a foreshadowing of unhappy things to come, like picking a stray hair from your hotel soap dish, or finding your prospective mother-in-law crouched in the back seat of your girlfriend's exotic newsports car. On my first visit to Man Ray, the city's latest breathlessly hip dining venue, the man at the door looked like a raffish St. Bart's lifeguard gone to seed. He wore baby-blue patent-leather shoes and had speckles of gray in his five-o'clock shadow. He was unnaturally tall, so he stooped down to check diners' names on his clipboard, then smiled at them with a slightly unhinged intensity as they went by. This Cerberus character may have been filling in for someone more normal-seeming (on my next visit, he was gone), but the impression he left was a little unsettling. Instead of sitting down to a pleasant dinner, it felt like a strange, potentially freaky social event.

Man Ray's front man is the French record producer Thierry Klemeniuk, who developed his formula for glitzy nightclub dining at his first Man Ray, in Paris. For his assault on Manhattan, he's recruited a gaggle of high-profile lounge lizards for partners (Johnny Depp, John Malkovich, Sean Penn, Harvey Weinstein) and jammed numerous upmarket pan-Asian artifacts into a former firehouse on 15th Street, near Sixth Avenue. Once past the doorman, you'll encounter platoons of deeply cushioned lacquered chairs, rows of Buddha heads, even agiant statue of the vengeful Hindu deity Shiva hovering prophetically over the bar. The room is split into a semi-discreet dining space above the bar area, a large Siberia zone in the basement, and the bar itself, where a stream of visiting Hollywood dignitaries -- Barry Diller, looking wolfish, Helena Bonham Carter, looking vaguely miffed -- prop themselves up on conspicuously visible banquettes, and are gawked at by crowds of patrons, like polar bears in a gilded zoo.

To get the attention of this flighty clientele, executive chef Frédéric Kieffer (formerly of Windows on the World) has concocted a whole slew of unlikely culinary combinations. Hunkered in the basement, next to a row of what appeared to be giant mandarin chamber pots, my taste testers and I chewed our way through a series of unremarkable but theatrically named sushi rolls like "Kiss of the Spider" (soft-shell crab and zucchini blossoms) and "Drunken Boat" (filled with shiitake mushrooms and capped with pieces of seared foie gras). After that came an inventive version of smoked salmon and blinis (made of sweet green peas) and a barracuda seviche with chunks of avocado and a caviar topping. Those were enjoyable, but a kind of crispy fritter made from pig's feet looked -- and tasted -- like it had been sitting for weeks in some Shanghai food stall.

Many of these recipes seem to have been constructed for short-term shock value, rather than long-term appeal. A bowl of egg-colored frog's legs featured the summery, and not entirely compatible, flavors of sweet corn and licorice. They actually tasted intriguing the first time I sampled them (there's a disk of custardy polenta flan in the middle, and the broth is made from mussels), but on a second try, the strange, licorice sweetness was so cloying, I had to put down my spoon. Among entrées, the duck breast was perfectly cooked but muffled in random pieces of litchi and a huge, decorative pineapple frond. Kieffer's various seafood dishes seemed fresh and generally well prepared, although my cube of codfish was drowned in a strangely bland concoction of milk, bacalao, and too much celery, and I'm not sure a meaty fish like dorado benefited from a covering of yuzu (that's a kind of Japanese lemon) and spiced carrot juice. When I got around to trying the lobster (poached in butter, with emulsified sake sauce and a mound of sweet mint-and-peapurée at the bottom), my taste buds were so addled, I had to ask a friend for a second opinion. "It kind of tastes like baby food," she said.

Other, brawnier dishes stood up better to this kind of experimentation, notably the rack of lamb rubbed with marjoram and bits of citrus, which came with lemony-tasting agnolotti. My filet mignon was served overly rare, but the meat was tender and mixed nicely with big spoonfuls ofconsommé and a pancake made from Yukon Gold potatoes. Kieffer's rabbit tasted less generic than the usual fancy Manhattan version of the dish and was piled in a little Portale-style tower decked with chopped chanterelles and a helping of spaetzle covered ina grainy mustard sauce. For dessert, there are a variety of experimental ice creams flavored of basil, rice pudding, or cheesecake. There is also a bulky variation ofcrème brûlée made with overly thick white chocolate and a rubbery hard-chocolate crust, and a "free form" key-lime pie that looked like a bowl of wet blueberries and bitter lime cream, mixed awkwardly with a chunk of almond meringue.

These items are portaged through the disco gloom of Man Ray by battalions of waiters and waitresses dressed up like extras on some hastily arranged B-movie set. The gentlemen tended to have ingratiating Continental manners, and the women wore ill-fitting Suzy Wong dresses. They moved to a soundtrack of clanging gongs, eerily chanting monks, and what sounded to one member of our party like "synthesized Iranian harem music." One evening, my large but inadvertent tip was happily accepted on top of the automatic house gratuity (for a party of six or more), and on another visit to the bar a waitress practically grabbed her tip from my hand after I'd forked over $3 for a tepid glass of club soda. Not that, in the end, I minded this kind of unrestful treatment. Man Ray isn't a sedate gourmet establishment, after all. It's a nightclub with gourmet pretensions. For as long as the scene lasts, tricked-up food and indifferent service will be the cost you pay for entry. Whether it's worth it or not depends, I suppose, on your point of view.

Man Ray
147 West 15th Street (212-929-5000).
Sunday through Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., Thursday to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday to 3 a.m.
Appetizers, $7 to $15; entrées, $19 to $29. All major credit cards.


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