'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a waistline had shrunken to fit a new blouse. Or at least, that's how it used to be. Way back when, the combination of self-indulgent corporate bashes with grande bouffe quantities of food and drink, a few annual overpriced pre-holiday group-hug dinners, and the arrival in town of at least one pair of relatives who wanted to take their favorite "still single" godchild out for a good meal, too often resulted in a New Year's resolution to lose the six pounds you'd given yourself for Christmas.
Well, this season could be a boon to your figure, if not to much else, since little of the above is likely to happen. In case you aren't an MTA worker, an AOL Time Warner stockholder, or in case you just hadn't noticed, the well of self-congratulatory benevolence has just about dried up. Not to quash anyone's prayers to Santa for a flat-screen TV, but wouldn't you rather fork over $25 for a DVD for the videophile on your list? With former spendthrifts spending thriftily, getting your stockings stuffed with unnecessary calories and self-loathing is pretty much left to you. Or you can capitalize on this leaner season by patronizing a restaurant celebrating the kind of portion control that may find you believing this is the most wonderful time of the year.
For a man of Charlie Palmer's skill, appetite, and ambition, Kitchen 22 is no big deal, which may be why it succeeds as well as it does. While the more elaborate dishes at Aureole sometimes suffer from being as effortful as they are ingenious, the get-right-to-it clarity of his three-course dinner for $25 at 22 sets the tone for a meal that isn't once-in-a-lifetime but sure is a welcome no-sweat night out for once. With only five selections for each course, a ready staff aware that the menu's brief descriptions leave little to ponder, and a fresh, clean-edged dining room designed not to distract (except when the "happy hour" decibel and cigar levels prove less endearing), why waste time? Pick something.
The menu, as executed by Palmer's chef de cuisine Scott Romano, is pretty much worryproof. No reason to hesitate delving into a salmon tartare nicely snapped by lemon crème fraîche and crackled by crisp salsify. Slices of weightlessly sweet beef carpaccio enjoy the tang of pickled vegetables. Lentil soup should adopt a gutsier base to harbor its pleasant Madeira reduction, but roasted-beet salad with walnuts and blue cheese or pepper-seared tuna are like acquaintances one is always glad to run into.
Though the menu changes every several weeks, it would be a shame for 22 to go too long this winter without offering its radiantly golden roast chicken. Spanish mackerel isn't what one would normally term a crowd pleaser, but then it's not normally prepared with a snappy tomato broth brightened by bits of chorizo and lemon essence. An almost candified fruit compote overwhelms a handsomely prepared pork loin, but keen balancing of a pale, licorice-scented fennel crust against an earthy port glaze complements roast salmon. A bowl of gemelli pasta with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan, and flashes of rosemary was the first entrée obliterated by my table.
Of five desserts, tirami sù is the only one unworthy of calorie compromise. Caramelized pineapples were swell, drenched in dark rum's glistening veneer. Chocolate decadence cake won't make chocoholics swoon yet, but with each visit it gets closer. Similarly, Key-lime pie acquires extra tang and more velvety consistency each time we meet. (Surely the next encounter should hook me completely.) And as unadorned as the hazelnut loaf is, its confident simplicity is what makes it such an uplifting choice.
No course at Kitchen 22 comes loaded like it's trying to steal customers from Peter Luger. Or Aureole, for that matter. Ah, but that's the beauty part of it. If it's bulk you're after for $25, there's always a trough of pasta at Carmine's with your name on it. For those smart enough to make Kitchen 22 a habit, here's not only a real bargain but the outside possibility that at this time next year, you too might come in a smaller portion.