I can’t believe they’re serving food in this chicken coop!” cried one of my grumpy, slightly disoriented guests, as we sat crouched in our little white café chairs at our rickety, farm-style tables, waiting for events to unfold at John Fraser’s radical new exercise in experimental dining, What Happens When. Fraser’s latest restaurant, as you may have heard, is not really a restaurant at all. At least it’s not a restaurant in, say, the static, prosaic, everyday way that Fraser’s critically acclaimed Upper West Side establishment Dovetail is. According to the notes on the back of the menu, this is a “temporary restaurant installation,” which means that the menu will change completely every month, along with the décor and music, the drinks program, and even the waiters’ outfits. A similar experiment in perpetual reinvention has been under way at Park Avenue Winter (a.k.a. Park Avenue Spring, Summer, Autumn) for years, but there’s another twist here: Fraser’s whimsical “culinary, visual, and sound experiences” will last only nine months (which is how long Fraser holds the lease on his chicken-coop-size space), after which the restaurant will go dark forever and everyone will go home.
On my first visit to Fraser’s culinary performance space, the little room (which in more conventional times housed the popular Nolita bistro Le Jardin) was painted all in black, with white lines drawn on the walls and floor, like on an architectural rendering or a chalkboard. Various builder motifs dangled here and there (empty windows, a mirror, a ladder), along with the kind of temporary, bare-bulb lamps you normally see illuminating suburban garages or construction sites. A month later, this tabula rasa theme had been replaced with an assemblage of red birdhouses, several of which were suspended above our heads in a thatchlike installation made of little green sticks. To encourage what the menu described as “a whimsical romp through our fantastical forest,” deer and bird tracks were painted on the floor, and the air was filled with the ambient sounds of what might have been rustling leaves, or popping popcorn, or bongo drums.
“I don’t think I’ll be coming here for steak with the guys,” muttered one of my guests, as he stuck his nose in a surprisingly refreshing gin creation called a Titania, which was named, like all the cocktails being served in this month’s installment of What Happens When, for a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For maximum flexibility, these drinks (which, last month, were named for characters in Hamlet) are mixed at a small, well-stocked cocktail cart in the back of the room. The tables look like they were purchased at an Amish rummage sale, and each one is equipped with two pullout drawers that contain enough cutlery for two courses. The slim, notebook-size prix fixe menus ($58 for three courses) are affixed to slats of plywood with rubber bands, and the recipes they contain are predictably artsy, righteously seasonal, and designed, like most things in the room, with an antic, slightly forced sense of occasion in mind.
Not that this is such a bad thing. Even my most skeptical uptown guests had to concede the quality of the toasty little knots of handmade pizza dough, which the kitchen sprinkles with bits of garlic and Emmentaler cheese and serves as a kind of dinner roll. The appetizers, on my first visit, included a helping of professionally cooked arctic char garnished with fennel and preserved lemon, New Brunswick oysters sunk in a borschtlike, beet-flavored mignonette, and a strange, not entirely unsuccessful, downtown version of fried potato skins dripped with a “fondue” made with wheat beer. The next month, Fraser’s first-course experiments included elegant, delicious, demitasse-size cups of pumpernickel soup (served as an amuse, with crème fraîche), a tasty, smoky hen-egg-and-toast creation wreathed in slivers of serrano ham, and a flat version of venison tartare, which the kitchen manages to enliven slightly with crispy, French-style tuiles made with crushed saltines.
Fraser’s cooking can have a thin, cobbled-together feel, but it’s rarely boring. The main-course dishes my tasters and I sampled included nice, tender slices of lamb saddle scattered with crunchy chestnuts, clunky chunks of salty, oversmoked brook trout, and an inventive interpretation of pork served three ways (belly, loin, and croquette over lentils) in a white bowl as big as a spittoon. My favorite seafood “experience” was a soft, lemony helping of monkfish plated over spinach and salsify and cut in a portion big enough for two. But the most inventive dish of all was a giant, wintry knob of celery root, which was salt-baked in a theatrical volcano shape, cut in pineapple-size slices, and arranged with cuttings of green apples on a bed of Cream of Wheat speckled with black truffles.
Fraser’s cooking is bound to get even more baroque as we move from winter into the more bountiful months of the cook’s calendar. Whether people will keep crowding into this diverting quasi-pop-up restaurant as the temperature warms and the conceit begins to wear off remains to be seen, but right now the clamorous little room is jammed with dating couples, slightly shell-shocked thrill seekers from uptown, and parties of jaded lounge lizards merrily sipping Champagne. The meager desserts don’t contribute much to this spontaneous party atmosphere, but they don’t detract from it either. I have dim memories of sipping a caramel-flavored Calvados cocktail to the faint sounds of hip-hop, and of a woman dressed all in black serving a glutinous overcandied panna cotta from a rolling dessert cart. If you want to play it safe, I suggest the cheese plate, and maybe a glass of Malmsey Madeira to go with it. Then sit back and enjoy the show.