Among this town's many factions of food-obsessed professionals, and the claques of well-informed diners that follow in their wake, certain chefs float above the fray, cloaked in a vague mist of invulnerability. Patricia Yeo, who opened her first Manhattan restaurant, AZ, almost three years ago, seems to have attained this bodhisattva-like status in record time. Her realm of expertise is Asian fusion cooking, a genre that tends to emphasize a chef's virtuoso talent to an extreme, almost exhibitionist degree. Fusion chefs are like avant-garde performance artists, or soloists in a respected though occasionally unmelodic modern opera. You may not actually enjoy dishes like duck-confit pot stickers dipped in orange lavender sauce (though I do), but the concepts are so imaginative and otherworldly that there's an overwhelming feeling that you should.
This sense of artistic buzz hovers over the proceedings at Pazo, Yeo's swank "Mediterranean fusion" restaurant, which opened mid-August on East 57th Street. The smallish midtown space has housed several prominent establishments over the years (most notably David Ruggerio's Le Chantilly) and is now tastefully and theatrically appointed with glowing, pasha-style lampshades, intricately carved wood screens from Morocco, and floors made of colorfully glazed Mediterranean tile. The little leather-backed menu is chock-full of strange and mysterious-sounding combinations like pomegranate-glazed Spanish hake, and honey-flavored duck with prune gnocchi. Surveying it, a couple of my food-fanatic friends could hardly contain their glee. "Patricia's a wonderful chemist," whispered one. "Let's prepare to be thrilled."
I don't know about thrilling, but several of the dishes I sampled were pretty great Yeo and her co–executive chef, Pino Maffeo, seem to have borrowed most heavily from the Spanish end of the Mediterranean palate (pazo means "noble house" in Catalan). Instead of the usual greasy squid parts, my fritto misto consisted of cheese-stuffed artichokes and tiny golden beignets made of lobster and corn. After that came a delicately tender chicken dish, blackened with cumin and tarragon, and a moist, crisp-skinned slab of duck confit, served with whole prawns over a mound of paella-style rice pilaf. The chicken, in particular, was full of little surprises, like tiny, toothpick-skewered chicken livers wrapped in bacon, and a small bowl of corn custard speckled with kernels of corn that crunched, like pomegranate seeds, as you ate them.
The subtle fusion touch works less well with some of the meatier items on the menu. My rack of lamb was remarkable only for the delicious merguez sausage accompanying it, and a wood-smoked pork chop with cockles and fennel sausage tasted much less dynamic than it sounded (a pork chop is a pork chop, after all). Ditto a decadent dish of seared tuna and foie gras -- in Pinot Noir sauce, on a rösti potato cake -- the very edible contents of which I ended up deconstructing on my plate and devouring separately. Yeo's other seafood experiments were much more successful, particularly the halibut -- steamed to baby whiteness in thin parchment and crowned with a warm salad of wild mushrooms -- and the meaty, vaguely lobstery monkfish fillet, which arrived at our table wrapped in a savory, crackly skin of pancetta.
As at AZ, the meals at Pazo unfold in a painstakingly elegant style. The room is filled with discreet banquettes, each one attended by fleets of dulcet-toned waiters. They produced a variety of fine Mediterranean wines, plus a series of inventive desserts conjured up by the pastry chef, Nicole Plue. I liked the rich pistachio terrine, the hot, dissolving farina cake (with cherries and mascarpone ice cream), and the silky Catalan cream, served with sugary beignets filled with caramel. The most outlandish dessert was a mass of honeyed phyllo, piled like feathers over diced pears and a blob of melted Pecorino cheese. This creation didn't necessarily taste wonderful (the cheese tips everything from sweet to cloying), but it certainly got your attention, which is one of Ms. Yeo's many talents, after all.