Having just returned from Florida, where my family and I, encased in giant, battleship-size SUVs, traveled vast distances to each restaurant meal, I think I can safely say that the pleasures of territorial dining are amplified in New York City. Territorial dining is one of this town’s defining activities, of course. A New Yorker’s grazing range may vary according to his (or her) appetite, but I would define it as being seven blocks in any direction from home. New Yorkers cultivate favorite spots—for lunch or a doughnut or afternoon tea—and tend to keep these locations secret, like Winnie-the-Pooh’s proverbial honey pots scattered over the Hundred Acre Wood. As with Winnie and his pots, these places tend to dwindle over time or become worn with use. So nothing is more unexpected or more pleasant for the serious territorial diner than taking a walk to the barbershop, say, or the pet-food store and stumbling upon a new and potentially interesting place to eat.
In my neighborhood, food-crazed Greenwich Village, this happens a fair amount, although nothing has been quite so unexpected or so pleasant in the past several months as the emergence of a sleek little establishment called Jefferson. The restaurant appeared not long ago on a small, undistinguished strip of 10th Street (not far from my barber, as it happens) between Sixth Avenue and Greenwich Avenue.
The space, which is across from the grand old Jefferson Library, once housed a drab diner. The new proprietors, who own a Southeast Asian bistro next door called Café Asean, have rewired it with soothing, yellow-gold lighting, rows of clean white tabletops, and a polished white oak floor. Instead of sad-faced Joes moping over their evening cups of coffee, there’s now a dimly lit bar up front serving tall, luminous cocktails. The waitresses hail from exotic places like Göteborg, Sweden, and instead of dowdy aprons they wear trim, aqua-colored ties.
This yuppie transformation wouldn’t be quite so successful if the food at Jefferson weren’t a kind of revelation, albeit in a small, neighborly way. Chief chef and proprietor Simpson Wong calls his brand of cooking a “new American cuisine”which is really a polite way of not using the dreaded “Asian fusion” label. But Asian fusion is what you get at Jefferson, and more often than not, the subtle, exotic combinations work. My first dish was a chaste, satisfying plate of yellowtail sashimi sliced in strips, flavored with capers, bits of preserved lemon, and chive oil, and laid over a bed of crunchy Asian pears. After that came two raviolis, one stuffed with flat-tasting Japanese edamame, the other with a mixture of ginger and chives. Both raviolis were properly soft and chewy, and both were improved by inventive sauces, one (the edamame) made with mascarpone, white wine, and saffron, the other with meaty porcini mushrooms and Asiago cheese.
Unlike lots of fusion chefs, Wong and his staff manage to enhance their recipes with improbable ingredients without obliterating a dish’s structure. My diver scallops were seared in the classic way, dusted in a pleasingly crackly Rice Krispie crust and served with braised endives and a sauce delicately spiked with white miso and tangerines. My friend the quail nut was effusive in his praise of the kitchen’s version of this tricky bird, which arrived at the table roasted whole, stuffed with a large fig, and balanced on sautéed oyster mushrooms and a crispy jícama cake flavored with just a hint of scallions. The house chicken at Jefferson is the exotic Chinatown variety called “black silky,” which has a grayish skin. It’s cut up in standard Western pieces, set around a mound of spinach, and served with a tangy, plumlike substance made from the dregs of Asian red wine. The result is unusual but familiar, an odd-looking dish that tastes salty-sour and possibly a little sweet, but ends up as simple, well-cooked chicken.
Some of the other experiments at Jefferson don’t pan out quite so well. My wife’s tuna-tartare-and-seared-duck-breast appetizer was meager even by her standards, and my eagerly anticipated braised pork shank turned out to be an average variety of osso buco decked with rock-hard quail eggs and a few mealy chestnuts. In the nourishing-winter-stew category, my favorite dish was a mass of oxtail sandwiched among layers of ravioli skins, with two pieces of seared monkfish on top. Finicky eaters can choose between a decent red snapper decorated with slices of candied persimmon (with leeks and enoki mushrooms in a coconut foam) and a nicely seared piece of branzino, served with sunchokes and artichokes in a lobster reduction tinged with lemongrass. If it’s straight lobster you desire, that’s available, too, fried in a lightly crispy batter and embellished with an inventive nage spiked with turmeric.
If you’ve ever dropped into Café Asean for the occasional plate of garden-variety chicken satay, the emergence of this kind of high-end cuisine is a little startling. It’s as if Mario Batali’s new pizza restaurant, Otto, had given birth to Babbo, and not the other way around. I can’t recall what I had for dessert the last time I was at Café Asean, but at Jefferson, you can get a little wheel of creamy, properly wobbly chrysanthemum-scented panna cotta to enjoy with your pot of Nantou Oolong tea. There’s also a hopped-up version of banana bread pudding and a delicious-sounding but ultimately failed variety of pot sticker stuffed with diced apples and overly sour goat cheese. Best of all, though, is the warm hazelnut chocolate cake, presented in a bouquet of phyllo with a spoonful of mascarpone ice cream. Sink the ice cream into the chocolate, and this normally clichéd dish turns into a melty, crunchy, satisfying mass. It’s an artful dish for a neighborhood joint. Come to think of it, it’s an artful dish for anywhere at all.