Those reality shows don't scare me. Looking for someone to skin a mongoose, make a love seat out of teak branches and a wild duck, referee a Real World house meeting about bathroom privileges? I'm your man. Just don't trap me in a restaurant where everyone table-hops. Adults rarely exhibit more insecurity than when running from table to table, ignoring those they came with in hopes of winning a popularity contest with no grand prize. Of course, there's nothing wrong with acknowledging acquaintances with an air kiss and an inquiry into one's health. But before asking everyone to shove over, ask yourself: "How come I wasn't invited in the first place?" Dying to dish with someone? Call tomorrow and make plans to sit at the same table real soon. Now go back to your own.
And nowhere is table-hopping worse than at a restaurant opening, those suicide missions at which one of the most fragile of service enterprises -- a new eatery -- is launched by inviting people to pass judgment on a kitchen and wait staff greener than steamed broccoli. Did Susan Stroman invite critics to The Producers' dress rehearsal? Of course not. So how did I find myself attending the opening of Theo?
Aglow with curved vanilla and caramel walls, the two-month-old bistro hardly looked like hell with banquettes. In fact, Frederique Gormand's design is seductive yet uncomplicated, minimal without the usual boutique-hotel chill. The low-wattage lighting is flattering, the sound level buoyant but bearable. The room does, however, have one big design flaw: An ill-defined waiting area causes unseated arrivals to cluster 'round the central revolving door like passengers waiting for their luggage. Pushing my way in, I found myself breaking up a waiting party of four. Well, at least they weren't likely to bop over to my table and pull up a chair. Astonishingly, neither did anyone else -- and there were seven other people at my table. Had the seats been piped in Velcro? Or could owners Jonathan Morr and Jenny Yip have used their expertise, honed at Republic and BondSt, to curate a clientele that actually likes the company they keep? Could it also be that the food being presented was too appealing to walk away from?
Chef Spencer Black's dishes are as ingenious as they are reasonably priced, and his kitchen gets more consistent and confident with each subsequent visit. Duck rillettes slather on bread like chunky peanut butter but have the rough grandeur of confit. Tingly, minted eggplant, spread on flatbread, must be passed around the table regardless of who ordered it. Grilled calamari are skewered like shish kebabs, with densely flavorful cherry tomatoes. Mussels acquire earthiness from chunks of chorizo and an un-shy garlic-and-wine broth. But even if thinness is a deliberate choice, mushroom soup winds up an uncommanding broth.
I deliberately hoarded my beautifully sautéed duck breast and truffled mash. I tried to muffle the wonderful crackle of arctic char adorned with crunchy baby leeks. But others at my table caught on, and the dishes went sailing away. Though chicken breasts sport a lovely jus, they need to get out of the oven sooner. Someone is being stingy with the spices for the lamb shank, and veal Milanese seems like an interloper from another menu. But for red-meat lovers, the osso buco and the aged strip sirloin are true pleasers, the latter even more impressive for the price ($24.50). And liver with glazed onions and apples will be what picks me up when March gets me run-down.
Spencer Black has got it cooking! However, pastry chef Sonia El-Nawal is my new goddess. Her desserts are thirteen different, itsy cups of instant happiness. Three layers deep, four bucks a shot, with names like Pear Up, Lemon Lightning, Hot Chocolate, Coffee Bliss. Not a clunker in the bunch. Order a few. I intend to feast on every one till I'm sick of them. So I could be spending too many nights at Theo to attend any future restaurant openings. But should you catch sight of me table-hopping, don't alert "Page Six." I'm no hypocrite. It's because someone I know just ordered a cup of Coffee Bliss.
Theo 325 Spring Street (212-414-1344); Sunday through Thursday, 6 p.m. till midnight; Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m. Appetizers, $6.50 to $9.75; entrées, $16.75 to $24.50. All major credit cards.