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Space Odyssey

What’s in a room? Yujin’s overwrought décor mirrors its no-holds-barred menu, while Rocco DiSpirito has turned a bull-market dining hall into a tribute to home cooking.

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Stare and be seen: The splashy, eye-catching dining room at Yujin.  

Sometimes décor can subtly mask a new restaurant’s ambitions; sometimes it can telegraph them in unsubtle, even unsettling ways. Yujin, which opened a month or two ago on a well-traveled section of 12th Street, falls into the latter category. You sense it when you cross the restaurant’s tiny moat, already littered with bits of street flotsam (twigs, torn paper), and pass through the great glass doors with handles made from bent wooden samurai swords. Inside, one whole wall is covered with long ribbons of gold leaf, like patches of swaying seaweed, plated in glass. The sushi bar appears to be encased in red lacquer, and the tall, curving chairs lining it look like they’ve been heisted from The Jetsons. Then there’s the ceiling in the front of the room, which, upon close inspection, is hung with thousands of pointy Japanese chopsticks. This aggressive, almost overweening display was not helped by the fact that my wife and I once knew the space as our neighborhood Kinko’s. “I keep having these acid flashbacks like I’m standing in front of a copying machine,” she said as she sipped a sake martini.

In accordance with this showy motif, chef Eiji Takase (formerly of Sushi Samba) presents the usual upmarket sushi treats—bluefin o-toro at $9 per piece, toro tartare for $14—plus a line of mostly seafood entrées, stacked in various provocative Iron Chef poses and lacquered with sticky-sweet sauces made with now-familiar ingredients like miso, yuzu, and soy. The toro experts at my table thought the sushi and sashimi were straightforward but not superb, although the toro tartare I sampled was overwarm and a little stringy. The more ornate maki rolls were much better, particularly one containing sea-eel tempura and bits of tart shiso leaf, and the Yujin roll, which is an amalgam of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail, all wrapped in a thin daikon skin.

Sushi aside, the bigger and more ambitious the dish at Yujin, the stranger and more varied the results. An appetizer called “yellowfin-tuna ravioli” turned out to be bits of yellowfin tuna with pineapples and avocado, all dunked in a sweet sauce made from pineapples and mint. I liked the simple red-snapper seviche and a kind of yellowtail carpaccio splashed with jalapeño peppers and ginger. But both the salmon and the grilled tuna-steak entrées were overwhelmed by their respective teriyaki-style sauces (one containing black sesame, the other yuzu and miso). If you’re fond of truffle oil, order the striped bass, and if you enjoy fried items, the tempura is okay. But avoid the red snapper, which is served up in a kind of death rictus, complete with hollow, staring eyes and a full set of fearsome, snaggly teeth.

The desserts at Yujin aren’t quite so frightening. My wife, who will eat crème brûlée in almost any form, seemed to enjoy the Yujin version, which is eggy, like custard, and rendered an iridescent Martian green, thanks to large amounts of green tea. There’s also an experimental form of hot-chocolate cake, flavored with bananas and crowned with a bristling samurai arrangement of candied plantain rinds. Traditionalists should order the dora yaki, a kind of bean-paste turnover. It’s presented here with elaborate big-city trimmings like powdered sugar, and tastes at least as good as the genuine article, which is readily available at most subway stations in Japan.

Jeffery Chodorow (of Asia de Cuba fame) conceived Tuscan Steak as a kind of corporate dining palace. He housed it in a refurbished steel-and-glass bank building and stuffed the menu with operatically large steak and pasta dishes, many of them of average quality, many of them drenched with unsavory amounts of truffle oil. Times change, though, and Tuscan Steak has turned over a new leaf. It’s called Tuscan now. The waiters wear brightly colored shirts, and little buckets of ornamental limes and lemons have been placed around the cavernous space to promote a more homey feel. More important, Chodorow has hired a talented chef, Rocco DiSpirito (of Union Pacific), to refine the menu and bring it in line with the more rustic tastes of twenty-first-century New York.

Given DiSpirito’s considerable talents, and the sorry state of the kitchen he inherited, he can’t help but succeed. The menu is now populated with many fashionable little dishes, the best of which were the fried artichokes (five for $6) and DiSpirito’s mother’s own handmade meatballs (three for $8). Among pastas, I liked the gnocchi, which are marshmallow-size and served in a rich mascarpone sauce, and the fettuccine, covered with a meaty rabbit ragù. On the other hand, the house lasagne was rendered more or less lifeless by a platoon of bland artichokes, and a dish called “hanky’s and ham” (ricotta-stuffed pasta shells with pancetta) tasted like something from the experimental kitchens of Mr. and Mrs. Stouffer.

In its heart, however, Tuscan remains a high-volume, macho beef house. The rib-eye had a well-seared, peppery exterior (though it’s no bargain at $42), and the decent porterhouse “alla Fiorentina” for two arrives with impressive fanfare, on a platter as big as a barge. The beef ribs (a Wednesday special) are worth a trip, and the exotically named “Pekinino Duck Agrodolce” has a crisp, candied exterior tasting faintly of oranges. My salt-crusted branzino seemed a little drab, but the salmon, which has a Parmesan crust, was good. And if it’s trimmings you want, try the bocconcini (fried balls of polenta, spritzed with truffle oil) or the kale, folded with nuggets of pancetta.

The best of the desserts at Tuscan tend to be communal in spirit. My favorite was the “Macchiato,” an iced-coffee-and-chocolate construction, interspersed with layers of cold, gooey butterscotch. Like lots of the food at the new Tuscan, it’s better than anything at the old Tuscan Steak, which is saying something, I suppose.

Yujin
24 East 12th Street
212-924-4286
Lunch, Monday through Saturday noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight. Appetizers, $6 to $14; entrées, $22 to $29. All major credit cards.

Tuscan
622 Third Avenue, at 40th Street
212-404-1700
Dinner, Monday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Friday to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $15; entrées, $19 to $42. All major credit cards.


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