Every fad invites a backlash, and in the case of retro fads, the backlash, among members of the foodie cognoscenti, can be severe. The sudden arrival in town of legions of new Asian-fusion restaurants classifies as a retro fad (let’s call it the Great Asian Fusion Restoration), even though many of these new establishments (Asiate, Geisha, Sumile) take most of their Asian influences from the sophisticated kitchens of Japan. Riingo, which opened recently off the lobby of the Alex Hotel, in midtown, is part of this new retro-fusion boomlet. It’s also the brainchild of the locally admired chef Marcus Samuelsson (Aquavit), which may be why my friend the Food Aristocrat was persuaded to sit down for a meal there in the first place. Faithful readers of this column will know that the Food Aristocrat is a virulent Asian-fusion hater, and it didn’t take long, after we were seated and perusing our menus, for her true colors to emerge. “I don’t know why you would put roast chicken and sushi on the same menu,” she hissed. “It just freaks me out!”
My guess is the menu at Riingo (the name means “apple” in Japanese) will freak out a few people. It’s an odd amalgam of meaty flavors (you can share a platter of roasted buffalo with your friends), inventive fusion technique (the excellent house Caesar salad is larded with bits of toro and uni), and luxury (a single piece of foie gras sushi costs $8). This food is sometimes very good and sometimes ordinary, but given Samuelsson’s considerable talents (the kitchen is overseen by Johan Svensson), the whole enterprise seems slightly off-key. The problems begin with the space, which is shoehorned into the side of the Alex Hotel, on a nondescript stretch of 45th Street off Third Avenue. There’s a modish, perfunctory bar area, a midget-size crow’s-nest dining mezzanine, and a windowless dining room you arrive at after passing a cramped little sushi bar. The walls of these rooms are colored red, like Japanese lacquer, which contributes to the sense of narrowness and confinement, like you’re dining inside an oversize bento box.
“The food is sometimes very good and sometimes ordinary, but given Samuelsson’s considerable talents, the whole enterprise seems slightly off-key.”
The proprietors (Samuelsson is a co-owner along with Hakan Swahn, his partner at Aquavit) attempt to alleviate these stuffy conditions by presenting their food in fanciful, grandiose ways, and for a while, it seems to work. The consistently excellent house sushi is arrayed, by the accomplished sushi chef Shigenori Tanaka (Hatsuhana, Jewel Bako), on great slabs of black slate. Aside from lumps of foie gras (don’t try eating more than one), you can order Kobe beef in sushi form, cut in raw, diaphanous slices and garnished with a hint of ginger. There are delicious maki rolls filled with lobster tempura, softly fried oysters, and fresh uni mingled with fresh crunchy bits of ika (squid). For pure extravagance, however, nothing tops the foie gras nori roll ($16), which is served on a curving, multitiered “wave” plate made of white porcelain. It comes with slices of grilled melon and cured mackerel, although if you’re like me, you’ll probably end up discarding these superfluous items and popping this oily, lethally delicious confection wholesale into your mouth.
Several other appetizers come disassembled in big white bowls, like a cat-food-size wheel of bland monkfish pâté (rescued by a fresh arctic-char seviche and a square of tangy plum gelée) and a trio of tartares, the best of which is a small, almost miserly mound of Kobe beef, topped with a single quail egg. Among seafood appetizers, the oyster-and-clam miso soup was watery, the salmon salad (served over a spicy kimchi arrangement of cabbage, watercress, and cucumber) was cold and lumpy, and the roasted rock shrimp (stuffed with soba noodles) were hard as golf balls. Curiously, given Samuelsson’s genius with fish, the meat dishes, like beef short ribs and an inventive rib-eye carpaccio, are much better. The short ribs are braised in beer, shredded, then pressed with a spoonful of apple-miso purée into a crisp, densely flavorful, Atkins-friendly dish. The carpaccio is plated with bits of grilled eel and bundled around a sweet apple purée, which leaks out in a pleasing, unexpected way, like filling in the middle of a candy.
Among the main entrées, only the braised pork belly (sliced in little candied squares and decked with honey and whole bulbs of garlic) drew much praise from the collection of prim, quietly dyspeptic foodies arrayed at my table. The Food Aristocrat ended up ordering the chicken, which was glazed with an uninspired teriyaki-style sweet-and-sour sauce. The poached bass (arranged in a wheel, with bits of octopus) had a similarly straightforward teriyaki taste, the arctic char was decent enough (it’s soft, like ice cream, with a mildly gooey rice-paper skin), and so was the rib-eye steak, which is adorned with a large, greasy button of bone marrow. Of the three dishes designed for sharing, the best is the red snapper, which is flavored with a rich, salty miso broth and served in crisp fillets, with hidden bulbs of bok choy. The worst is the huge canoelike platter of photogenic though unaccountably bland salmon, and somewhere in between sits the buffalo, which tastes fine as buffalo goes but is sawed in great, unwieldy hunks.
The prices are generally reasonable at Riingo (the pork belly costs only $14), although you can make up the difference quickly by ordering too much designer sake (I enjoyed a modest glass of something called White Water Fall) or any one of a number of side dishes like yam purée (good), Nobu-style shiitake-mushroom tempura (very good), and curried chicken noodles (very bad). The best dessert on the menu is an inspired green-tea doughnut (it’s dusted with colored sugar to look like a peach), followed by a satisfying soft chocolate pancake, which is dripped with chocolate sauce and small scoops of jam, and a peanut-butter-and-poppy-seed parfait. There’s also decent Asian-fusion pineapple tart (served with a smear of miso cheesecake) and a nebulous dish advertised as “jasmine rice cream.” It turns out to be a bowl of vaporous, rice-flavored foam set over some diced fruit. I suppose the foam is technically impressive, and it tastes something like rice pudding. But in the end, the dish promises much more than it delivers, which, at this early stage, is as good a description as any for dinner at Riingo.
Riingo, 205 East 45th Street (212-867-4200). Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Appetizers, $6 to $16; entrées, $14 to $42. All major credit cards.