Every grizzled fine-dining veteran knows that your enjoyment of dinner can be directly affected by where you’re seated in a restaurant. But I’ve never encountered two rooms as jarringly different as the ones on display at Sam Talbot’s new seafood restaurant, Imperial No. Nine, which opened several weeks ago off the lobby of the Mondrian Soho hotel. The main dining room, where I was seated one grim evening, is a windowless lounge-lizard Siberia. There, the house music is annoyingly loud, and the glowing imitation Louis Quatorze furniture looks like it’s been lifted from the VIP lounge of an after-hours club in suburban L.A. The garden room, by contrast, is an airy space enclosed in glass, like a giant greenhouse, and decorated with flowerpots and handblown chandeliers. On a clear evening, you can look up and see the stars twinkling dimly over downtown Manhattan. So it was a lucky thing, for Talbot and his crew, that the maître d’ decided to seat our party in the garden room when I took Mrs. Platt to dine at the Mondrian. “I love this place,” she announced not once but twice, as we gazed up at the sky from our table next to a row of mossy planters.
Like the faux-bucolic surroundings in the front of the house, much of the food at Imperial No. Nine seems to have been designed with a delicately discerning—you could say feminine—sensibility in mind. There is no burger on the dinner menu. All of the ingredients, as our waiter (who looked uncannily like Jonathan Rhys Meyers from The Tudors) took pains to explain, are righteously sourced. The fish is “line-caught” and not “dredged” by commercial boats from the ocean floor. The heirloom vegetables are handpicked from a boutique Ohio farm (there are seven non-meat dishes on the menu), and many are designed to make a meal in themselves.
“I could eat everything on this menu twice,” Mrs. Platt declared as we picked at a plate of fresh “pea leaf” salad (tossed with a miso vinaigrette) and a little row of fluke crudo, which the kitchen spritzes with chile water and tops with wafers of frozen coconut milk that dissolve pleasingly on the tongue. There were fat fried oysters in the first wave of dishes (with sweet chow-chow relish and shreds of crackly Black Forest ham), little bowls of finger-size cauliflower fritters, and strips of pink tuna dressed with bits of grapefruit. The sweet, multicolored beets were sautéed in an iron skillet and served with their tips on, sort of like country pears, and if you order the shrimp and heirloom blue-corn grits, the dish comes to the table mixed with melted Cheddar and a single sous-vide egg, and flavored, deliciously, with maple syrup.
Talbot is a veteran of the Top Chef TV circuit (he finished third in season two), and he has a fondness for piling ingredients helter-skelter on top of one another and for using similar salty-sweet flavor profiles again and again. This did not detract from Mrs. Platt’s enjoyment of a bitingly fresh piece of Pacific halibut (served as a daily special over bulgur tossed with black olives and healthful kale chips), or the king-crab legs, which are seared a la plancha, in the Spanish style, and splashed with sweet-and-sour butter, soy, speckled sesame seeds, and crisped garlic. The desserts (squares of hard banana pudding, a gimmicky egg cream stuck with giant green straws) were less successful, even in the friendly confines of the garden room. If you have to choose one, Mrs. Platt recommends the button-size lemon tarts, which are topped with yuzu foam and scattered, decoratively, with edible flower petals.
Niko, which opened early this year in the iconic former Honmura An space on Mercer Street, is another trendy new Soho restaurant with unexpectedly good cooking and a slightly feng shui–challenged atmosphere. Unfortunately, there’s no easy remedy for the boxy second-floor loft space, which, as those of you who used to visit Yoko Ono’s favorite Japanese soba restaurant during its heyday will remember, has a giant stairwell sprouting in the center of the dining room. Co-owner Cobi Levy (formerly of the Beatrice Inn and the doomed speakeasy Charles) has installed a sushi bar at the back and rows of standard black leather banquettes. But the ceilings and brick walls are hung with a strange, jerry-rigged installation of cables and painted wooden planks, which make the crowded, patchily lit room feel even more disjointed and boxier than it already is.
Still, it’s a nostalgic pleasure to see Yoko herself, sitting in a corner banquette, peering at her dinner from under the brim of her wide black hat. If her meal was anything like mine, it included dainty bowls of miso soup bobbing with water chestnuts, and excellent “to share” plates of “Suntory time steak” spritzed with the eponymous whiskey, or pieces of curling, golden-fried “Tokyo crispy chicken” served with wedges of lemon. The real specialty of the house, however, is the sushi, which is overseen by Hiro Sawatari, a former acolyte of the great Naomichi Yasuda of Sushi Yasuda, in midtown. There are eleven maki rolls to choose from, and the usual intricately sliced hamachi, shellfish (try the pearly shrimp from Maine), and toro. Order these delicacies in grab-bag platters, or, if you have the resources, take a seat for an omakase dinner at the bar (from $75), where Sawatari’s big-money clients gather in the evenings, like walruses on a rock.