‘I feel like I’m in Chicago,” someone said as we settled down to dinner at Sheridan Square, the competent, blandly appointed restaurant that opened not long ago on a heavily trafficked stretch of lower Seventh Avenue on the grim border region of the West Village. Actually, the setup at Sheridan Square (which includes a bar and dining room, plus several smog-blown sidewalk café tables) doesn’t look like that of any ambitious Chicago restaurant I’ve ever seen. It looks more like the inside of a first-tier Kansas City airport hotel. The walls of the dining room are covered in white beam board and random black-and-white photographs of beaches and surfboards and trees. The ceilings are hung with the kind of circular crimson lampshades that were all the rage in modish restaurants a decade ago. The generic furniture looks like it’s been thrown together by flunkies from Ethan Allen. There is a wood-burning oven flickering in the back of the room, but then that’s true of every new restaurant nowadays, from the Kansas City airport to the pearly shores of Malibu.
Given these portents of doom (location and décor being the surest early indicators of a restaurant’s prospects), it’s a mild surprise that Sheridan Square has managed, during its short tenure, to lure not one but two top-level chefs into the kitchen. The first was well-traveled restaurant ronin Gary Robins (late of the Russian Tea Room), who put together a respectable menu before abruptly vanishing, as he has been prone to do throughout his career. Robins was replaced, several weeks ago, by Franklin Becker, a practiced big-city professional who ran the kitchen at Brasserie, on East 53rd Street, for many years and once did time as Ron Perelman’s private chef. In accordance with the wood-burning-oven motif, Becker has implemented a seasonal, New American menu that includes a predictable number of “cherrywood-grilled” items (octopus, trout, rib-eye steak), plus one or two wistful choices from the chef’s old gourmet days uptown, like a properly smooth, cool foie gras torchon, and platters of “wood-oven-roasted” escargot.
Becker’s rustic, fire-blasted escargot turned out to be mini, even by snail standards (six of them will cost you $13), and what taste they had was obscured by a bizarre glaze made with rosemary and too much soy. I don’t think I’ll be ordering the bison carpaccio again either (purple shreds of meat flavored uneasily with watermelon and pickled shallots), or the tartare made from a Spanish fish called “cerro,” which was gummy in texture and randomly scattered with more pickled boutique-farm items (ramps, in this case). But after these miscues, the menu begins to pick up some steam. Becker’s yellow-tomato gazpacho has a deep, gourmet smoothness to it, and is sweetened with a scoop of housemade cantaloupe sorbet. The risotto that went around our table (it’s folded with fresh shrimp and late-summer peas) is a decent little dish for this benighted little strip of Seventh Avenue, and so is the wood-grilled octopus, which was soft and nicely charred and served over a cooling, crunchy stack of mint-specked fennel.
Most of the main courses are similarly adept, though Becker rarely strays from the time-tested, neighborhood-friendly roster of chicken, salmon, and a seafood dish or two. The constrained, slightly prosaic entrée list includes nine items, and in an attempt to add a little zip, one of the sections has been named “From the Stove.” Most of these familiar dishes are well executed, however, and a few are downright good. I didn’t hear many complaints from my assembled tasters about the salty, crispy-skinned chicken breast (pan-seared, “from the stove”), or the housemade ravioli, which are stuffed with slightly lemony deposits of ricotta and set in a warm tomato confit with shavings of pecorino. The fat, crunchy-topped scallops are scattered with chanterelles and hidden bits of bacon, and the softly poached salmon is flown in from Scotland and plated in a delicate anise-flavored broth, just the way they do in the pricey expense-account joints uptown.
Becker seems to be still getting the hang of his wood-burning oven, which, on my first visit, produced a pleasingly large though radically overcooked pork chop muffled in a thick black-cherry-and- Pommery-mustard sauce and too much cumin. The clean, deboned trout fillet (from Idaho, and plated with sticks of zucchini) was nicely done, though, and so was the grilled swordfish, the freshness of which is highlighted with a scattering of paprika and a crush of warm tomato salad. But if you plan on traveling more than a few blocks to this vacant stretch of Seventh Avenue, the thing to get is the beef. In fact, if Becker’s wise, he’ll add a few more cuts to the menu and turn his restaurant into a closet chophouse. My friend the Steak Loon has returned once or twice for the crispy fat rib eye ($39), smothered in butter-roasted mushrooms and truffled creamed spinach. Best of all, though, is the New York strip ($42), a beautifully textured piece of meat that has the complex, mineral taste of a first-class steakhouse cut.
If you’re feeling rash, do what the Steak Loon does and complement your protein binge with a helping of bacon-covered organic grits, or a bite or two Becker’s gimmicky “Sloppy Mary” burger, which contains a ball of Cheddar cheese hidden in its beefy core. But if you’re wise, you’ll save room for the desserts, several of which manage to capture the restaurant’s tired barnyard ethos in playful, original, ways. There are fresh berries poured with crème fraîche, and an old-fashioned French pain perdu cut in thick wedges and paired with caramelized bananas and Ovaltine ice cream. The updated strawberry shortcake (slabs of moist pound cake in between layers of sugary, lightly cooked strawberries) is a satisfying dish, as is the elegant, gourmet version of s’mores, consisting of a chocolate ganache with hints of caramel. It comes with ice cream topped with crumbled graham crackers and has a burnt-marshmallow top, and, like much of the food in this curious restaurant, it’s much better than the ordinary surroundings deserve.