What kind of epicurean slouch would truck with a Peking-duck pizza? Me, I confess, though I wish I had more class. This feckless love affair began when I first encountered John Tesar concocting that sort of cultural free-for-all at 13 Barrow and I was determined to trash it. But something about the luscious crunch and crackle of laminated duck skin, the trickle of hoisin sweetness, got to me. After all, it’s not a totally preposterous stretch from the bird’s classic Chinese-pancake wrap or sesame pocket to a pizza crust. Well, 13 Barrow is gone. Now the same Village storefront is reborn as One3. New owners. Nice lilting sounds from the tape deck. New paint job: deep salmon with purple splotches looking like serious water damage or Gorbachev’s forehead. And, with good sense and poetic logic, Tesar is still in the kitchen.
The neighborhood crowd is back again, too. Or maybe it never left. Cool in dress-down duds and unisex eggbeater bobs, they are still young enough to read the menu by the votive flicker in the challenging murk. They lean into the pillows on the resurrected banquette, perhaps sharing a pizza, too. Bubbly free-form rounds are baked to stand up without a curl or a dribble. Three cheeses and truffle oil are the only bow to convention. A field of pizza strewn with truffle-oil-scented potato slices and Parmesan is my favorite, but too-sweet mango-fig chutney spoils the tandoori-chicken number. By the time I felt strong enough to brave foie gras with apple sauce, fate stepped in. It had been eighty-sixed for the night. Prefer something classic? Just ask, says Tesar.
During the six months the Village storefront was closed, the chef took his mouth to France for inspiration. At Alain Ducasse in Paris, “I was amazed to see how old-world straight-up it really is,” Tesar confides. But he was already too far gone mixing cuisinary metaphors to find his way back. Fusion is not even a word he wants to use. The juxtaposition of clam risotto with spring peas and crispy bacon lardons on the menu as a starter along with the stir-fried baby squid, carrots, shiitake, bok choy, and sunflower sprouts in chili oil and lobster broth is, he suggests, simply American. “It’s what I do. What everyone is doing. It’s global – like the economy.”
If anything, he’s now jacked up his flavoring a notch and also plays skillfully with texture. Starters like the yellow-split-pea soup swirled with Indian-curry butter and ginger-jalapeño yogurt, and the potato-and-goat-cheese-stuffed cannelloni with caramelized onions and fennel on carrot juice and vanilla oil, are complex but don’t look overfussy. He pairs sashimi tuna with melting bits of crispy sweetbread girdling a frisée-and-rocket salad that hints of soy. Lao beef-noodle soup with roasted garlic and mint stirs memories of Vietnam and is so filling, I’d come back and make it dinner, perhaps with the sprightly candy-cane beet salad.
At times, there is no acid touch to temper recurrent hits of sweetness. That’s definitely a flaw for me. And though I don’t mind a fine scattering of star-anise dust on the edge of the Peking-duck-pizza plate, I think it’s time to hide the confectioners’-sugar shaker from bamboozled cooks who think it’s not dessert without a drift of powder coating the china.
Too bad the gentle prices that made 13 Barrow worth a $20 taxi ride in 1995 are no more as we lurch toward the millennium. Pizzas and other starters are $7 to $12 now ($20 for the smoked-salmon-caviar-pie option). And entrées that once began at $13 run from $18 to $24. But if cash is tight, four can share an $11 pizza to begin, and two can split the scallop-and-celeriac-ravioli appetizer that looks like an entrée on its mound of celeriac purée with shiitakes in a port reduction.
Food this good in a casual and romantic setting is just what New Yorkers are always seeking. One if by Land, Two if by Sea has been thriving a few doors down on beef Wellington and candlelight in a 1786 townhouse for decades. Tonight, Tesar’s Muscovy duck is a Jayne Mansfield – its buxom breast roasted whole ought to be rarer, but I’m taken by the flavor, the sweet-potato hash, and even the apricot-fig chutney. Lemon-pepper gnocchi, savory olives, sweet pepper, and roasted tomato are a savory accent to monkfish osso buco served on the bone.
Pot-roasted chicken picks up extra luster with a tart Cambodian dipping sauce and wonderful sticky rice. Pan-seared sea bass with carrots in a spicy carrot sauce strikes me as bland. And a swamp of basil-scented ricotta with tomato and cardoon under a sheet of pasta is a misstep not even sweet spring-pea sauce can mitigate. Better choices: Seared cod with crisp artichokes and fava beans in tomato broth. Vinegar-braised flank steak and short ribs with butter-bean mashed potatoes. Crusted salmon with zucchini fritters (ask for the fish really rare).
Tesar is his own dessert chef. Edible spoons – in pastry or chocolate – are his signature alongside the malted-milk flan with vanilla-egg-cream brûlée and chocolate sorbet, and atop berry and yogurt sorbets in the bracing berry soup that is a tonic after so much richness. But it’s worth saving a corner of appetite for the banana Tatin with Barbados-rum-raisin clotted cream, or warm chocolate pudding on chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier ice cream.
Nightbirds will want to know they can swoop in after midnight and still find the Lao beef-noodle soup, crab cakes, risotto, steak-frites, and a meal-on-a-pizza. Let’s hope the guardian of the date book at the maître d’ stand isn’t already getting jaded. The place was empty early one weekday night when she told our guests she couldn’t find their reservation. A couple of a certain age, he in tweed, she in sexy gypsy shawl, were genuinely hot in a quadrant where the mantra is cool. “You’re probably looking for the place down the street,” she insisted. “One if by Land.” The president of a major model agency got the drift of her thinking, but he’s too much of a rhinoceros to be offended.
One3, 13 Barrow Street (633-6337). Dinner, Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday till midnight; late menu, Thursday through Saturday midnight to 3 a.m. Brunch, Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. A.E., M.C., V.