Once upon a time, before soufflés mysteriously vanished from the menus in midtown and the pork chop replaced filet mignon as the protein of choice among the city’s high-minded gourmets, Michelin-approved chefs from Europe were received in New York like visiting popes. But those days are long gone. The perennial Michelin favorite Alain Ducasse has closed two of his four New York restaurants in the past decade, and the survivors (Adour and Benoit) have gone through five chefs in three years. Joël Robuchon’s gourmet outlet at the Four Seasons Hotel has managed to fly under the radar, but Michelin’s other darling, Gordon Ramsay, received a series of tepid reviews when he set up shop in the London hotel five years ago. The Four Seasons briefly hired the celebrated Italian cook Fabio Trabocchi to update its ancient menu, but the plutocrat regulars complained so bitterly that Trabocchi abandoned his efforts and eventually left town.
So you have to give the Barcelona chef Miguel Sánchez Romera credit for even getting on the plane when the jet-set hoteliers Sant and Vikram Chatwal asked if he’d bring his eccentric brand of “neurogastronomy” to the basement of their new Dream hotel, Dream Downtown, in the meatpacking district. Romera, as you may have heard, is a trained neurologist and a self-taught chef whose food is described by his admirers (his Barcelona restaurant, L’Esguard, has one Michelin star) as being a kind of holistic, artisanal version of the high-wire molecular gastronomy practiced by his famous countryman Ferran Adrià. Romera has a fondness for edible flowers and strange, vegetal potions designed to increase sensory awareness of one’s meal. His dishes are accompanied by elaborate tasting notes that he composes himself. And to experience the eleven-course menu at his new, eponymous establishment on 16th Street, you have to fork over $245, which puts Romera in the rarefied economic company of Masa and Per Se.
“This all seems very Lost in Translation to me,” said one of my bemused guests as we peered around the subterranean, slightly disorienting room at Romera, which you get to by descending a staircase, at the bottom of which is a display of objets from the chef’s medical career (a stethoscope, a porcelain head). There are boxes of herbs set along the walls of the dining room and a Ducasse-style antechamber where you can sip $49 glasses of Cristal Champagne while thumbing through cookbooks from the chef’s personal “culinaria” library. According to the restaurant’s website, the stark whiteness of the tables and leather chairs is meant to evoke the doctor’s medical background. Suspended above them are round glass “light canopies” decorated with pressed butterflies. The tasting notes are emblazoned with butterflies too and presented in a complimentary CD-size box. When the first course arrives, the lights in the canopy are brightened, illuminating each place setting like a tiny stage.
Eiro (“to announce” in ancient Greek, according to my note card) was the name of our first, “pre-appetizer” course, and it was served on gold-rimmed Versace plates. It consisted of slices of soft baked bread, hand-rolled in the Moroccan style, which we were instructed to dip in a pleasantly sweet mixture of boutique olive oils and crushed seeds (“mini pansy flowers, pollen grains, and poppy seeds”), then wash down with dainty sips of garlic-flavored tomato water. Next up was Aprilis (Latin for “to introduce the spring”), an intricately constructed shellfish mousse encased with more pressed flowers in a translucent, toothpaste-size tube of shaved daikon. That was followed by a mash of sushi-grade tuna (Cloris, the goddess of flowers), which would have been more successful if it hadn’t been garnished with an assortment of sauces and creams flavored, like different kinds of bath soap, with jasmine, orange blossom, and coconut.
There’s a soft, deliberately blanched quality to Dr. Romera’s mannered style of cooking (he famously substitutes a cassava gel for pork fat), which is accentuated, as dinner progresses, by the specially brewed, vaguely medicinal “Aqua Gourmand” potions and vegetable broths he serves with each course. “This tastes like old bong water,” one of the grizzled New Yorkers at my table said as we sipped tentatively at a brown-tinged broth (infused, according out our loquacious waiter, with porcini mushrooms) designed to complement a decorative foie gras dish (“Euterpes, the Greek muse for lyric poetry,” for the record), which was plated with, among other things, a purée of smoked eggplant, ribbons of brightly colored daikon, and a strange waxy substance made with cassava root and white chocolate.
In a town overrun by fashionable speakeasies and upscale burger joints, this kind of abstruse, European, performance-art cooking can have its charms, of course. When I returned, alone, for a second dinner at Romera, I actually found myself sniffing at the different varieties of herbal bong water and enjoying the clinically soothing, almost spalike peacefulness of the room. The obsessive Dr. Romera makes his own chocolates (they’re delicious) and roasts his own coffee beans (they’re delicious too). If I hadn’t spent exactly $324 on my dinner (excluding tax, tip, and a soothing $14 whiskey), I would have happily ordered any one of the Burgundies on his sophisticated, carefully chosen wine list. The doctor is even his own pastry chef, which may explain why the two desserts on the menu of this ambitiously flawed, strangely misconceived restaurant (banana mousse over chocolate cake with an orange-chocolate soup, a beautifully colored disc of sorbet called Policromi) are, like much of the food here, more pleasant to look at than to eat.