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Adoring Geisha

Geisha may not offer the most Zen-like space in town. But chef Michael Vernon’s menu will definitely leave you blissed out.

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Squeeze box: Geisha's dining room may be cramped, but the food is excellent.  

I’m crazy about Geisha’s food. Smart, spare, and oh-so-pretty, studded with soothing surprises, chef Michael Vernon’s menu is a streamlined roster of near and total knockouts. It not only celebrates his enviable, previously unheralded skills, but also salutes his mentor, Eric Ripert, perhaps the city’s most reliably satisfying chef, by offering an opportunity to sit and savor New American, Asian fusion, Pan-Global, or whatever the hell kind of cooking we’re calling it this week, at its complex but least complicated best.

There’s just one catch: You have to somehow get your ass in a seat.

And the way getting a table works most nights at Geisha, you’d have it a lot easier on Fear Factor, locked in chains underwater in a Lucite box. I don’t know. Maybe if I were younger, single, and less hungry in several ways, I wouldn’t mind the bar crush that stabs like a stiletto on an instep as soon as you walk in. I would find it amusing that I can’t find the hostess (oh, she’s there, pretty enough to be hovered around by a pack of dry-clean-jeaned, Fendi-monogram-loafered satyrs). The impasse on the stairs wouldn’t aggravate. The narrow walls wouldn’t agitate.

Most notably, I’d think nothing of the fact that Geisha doesn’t take reservations after 6:30, a practice that works in coffee shops but is as annoying as a Dennis Miller rant when adopted by a house with $30 entrées. The managers, who own the Serafinas and are used to orchestrating Tod’s-toting tumult, quickly spot friends and regulars. But is everyone else so eager to be here that they find jockeying on this D train to nowhere worth the bother?

Oh, they sure do. In fact, no one seems to mind having to dodge paws and elbows and slug sake at the same time. Alumni of Au Bar and Gertrude’s, come to Geisha. There’s a square inch at the bar with your name on it.

As for you more sensitive souls, my principles urge me to direct you elsewhere, but my senses, knowing what awaits in Geisha’s second floor and back dining rooms, overrule. How can they not, when memories of the bracing tartness of Spanish-mackerel tartare sharded with coriander and scallion and topped with wasabi “caviar” still remain as present as a partner’s perfume? When the taste of a sugarcaned “lollipop” of coriander-marinated shrimp is more delightful than a heart-shape box of candy? When tender mussels drip a glorious broth of Thai red curry and fresh lime, and slivers of green papaya with a dash of soy vinaigrette ensure the house tuna sandwich gets devoured faster than a hoagie at a hockey game?

Serene as Vernon’s plates appear, there’s nothing fussy about their pleasures. Oysters are dressed with but a mere dash of dashi ponzu, but it’ll stop you mid-sentence. The aroma of orange zest cannily unites a clear amber miso consommé with a slew of fresh cockles. Seaweed salad works little magic, but both Asian-pear-and-crab salad and a waterfall of grilled chicken cascading over a spring-roll shell invigorate luncheon-lady mainstays, and a patchwork of hamachi and tuna in yuzu vinaigrette is seamless bliss.

Sushi chef Kazuo Yoshida’s special Geisha rolls and sashimi deserve a separate visit—after you indulge in a near-gravity-defying halibut ringed in a ginger-beet vinaigrette or an earthy rack of lamb with lacquered jus and taro-root purée. Salmon marinated with miso mirin and sake leaves an impression as alluring as polished coral. Too much umeshu plum, not enough port, turns roasted pork tenderloin bitter, and chicken breast in a black-truffle broth is out of its league. But day-boat cod in soy ginger, filet mignon in a piquant soy, and velvety skate in ponzu and brown butter are elegantly simple, while roasted chili-spiked lobster is magnificently sloppy.

Geisha’s desserts are slyly insinuating, especially pot de crème with a dark chocolate you can’t quite overeat, a mille-feuille more fragile than a Latin film star’s broken heart, and a buttermilk panna cotta with a zap of passion fruit that catapults it to giddy heights.

Perfect. Some of us need to be a little spacey at meal’s end here. Remember, you’re leaving the same way you came in, pushing through a crowd that’s pushing way too hard. I could snarl, hurt someone, but all I say is “Excuse me, please.” Exactly what I’ll say the next time I come in. Which will be very soon.

Geisha, 33 East 61st Street (212-813-1113). Dinner, 5:30 to midnight daily. Lunch, noon to 3:30 Monday through Saturday. Appetizers, $10 to $18. Entrées, $19 to $33. All major credit cards.


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