In this era of clipped expectations and glum fiscal restraint, one thing anxious new restaurateurs don’t have to be restrained about is a name. A restaurant’s name is its calling card, after all. It’s an invitation to dine, not the dinner itself; it costs nothing to produce, and, like the title of a Broadway show, it can elevate or exaggerate the proceedings in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Take Lamu. It takes its name from the famously exotic island off the coast of Kenya, well known, according to one Website I consulted, for its mbambakofi wood and narrow, donkey-infested streets. I don’t know what the food is like on Lamu the island, but I doubt the local diet includes duck confit, which is the first item I spotted atop the restaurant’s menu when I dropped in not long ago.
Not surprisingly, Lamu’s connections to Africa turn out to be more nostalgic than culinary. The owner is an Eritrean named Sahle Ghebreyesus, whose first restaurant, Caffe Adulis, was a noble though doomed attempt to introduce New Yorkers to the strange intricacies of his native cuisine. His new establishment, located at the same address, in the heart of the restaurant-infested Flatiron district, is a canny attempt to adapt to local tastes while retaining a whiff, at least in title, of his own exotic background. The bar at Lamu serves your basic selection of local Cosmopolitan-style cocktails, and in the evenings it’s populated by the kind of chic, youthful couples who never would have been caught dead in Caffe Adulis. The new dining room has been revamped in clubby downtown hues of midnight and sky blue, and the ceilings are now hung with the kind of circular lampshades that used to be fashionable, once upon a time, in vanished bull-market Manhattan.
Chef Michael Burbella, formerly of Gramercy Tavern, has constructed his menu in a similarly familiar bistro form, and, at least in the early going, some of it seems a little thin. The best of the appetizers involves that very dependable, un-African ingredient, foie gras. It’s presented in smooth, cool terrine form (predictably velvety and delicious) with an apple-cider reduction on the side. However, the duck confit was cut up in cold bits and enmeshed in a strange, oily construction of mushrooms and haricots verts. My neighbor’s goat-cheese-and-eggplant terrine appeared to have been refrigerated for days, not hours, and my own plate of small raviolis stuffed with radicchio and mascarpone (sprinkled with truffle jus and bits of tepid ground quail) tasted like some bland gourmet recipe from the kitchens of Chef Boyardee.
Luckily, the main entrées at Lamu more than make up for these little deficiencies. After my grim encounter with duck confit, I was surprised to find that the loin of lamb I ordered was firm, tender, and perfectly pink inside. There are three satisfactory seafood dishes to choose from, particularly the black bass (served with swiss chard) and the roasted cod, which is spiked with saffron and laid over a pile of Jerusalem artichokes. Among poultry items, the duck and roast chicken were both expertly cooked (the former garnished with butternut squash, the latter with faro), and the squab was downright superior. It’s pressed flat, roasted crisp around the edges, and flavored with a hint of cocoa. Cocoa, of course, is a favorite African ingredient. At Lamu, it’s as close to the old country as you’re likely to get.