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.