Second Thyme Around

The Santo family, restaurant veterans all – Doctor Joe the dentist, brother Berge, and his wife Henny – confront the millennium in upheaval and overdrive. Their Upper East Side fiefdom is in midlife flux. Having levitated their house bakery, Ecce Panis, into a commercial rollout and surrendered the mythic Sign of the Dove to forces in real estate, the Santos have retired Arizona 206 to oblivion (at least for the moment) to make way for the Latino Bolívar at 206 East 60th Street, while the adjacent Yellowfingers has been retooled as the more chichi Cibi-Cibi in hopes of drawing the MTV generation.

And Cibi-Cibi is welcoming. Windows thrown open to Third Avenue. A few playful dudes at the horseshoe bar. Shimmering aquamarine, lapis, and jade tiles drawing the eye to the open kitchen with its sinuous dining counter. But that noise. Raucous music blasts from a dozen speakers. No corner of the room is safe for civilized conversation. Forget about escaping to the enclosed sidewalk café – that’s all tables for two. And the new D.J. isn’t even in his booth yet. Our unsmiling waitress is not a wee bit sympathetic. We ask her to send the manager. No one comes, except, finally, decent margaritas, a refreshing citrus cooler (Absolut Citron, Stoli Ohranj, Sprite, and juices), and a sensational vegetable punch (Rosso di Mattina) that just happens to have a splash of vodka. I never meant to be an old fogy. “Do you think it’s our A-G-E?” I ask my pals, too spooked to utter the forbidden word. “How do you feel about the music?” one of my guests asks a litter of youthlings at the next table. One of them looks up, listens: “Loud, isn’t it?” he observes.

At a first tasting last March, we nearly drowned in oil and butterfat. And there’s still a treacherous puddle of melted pecorino goo and oil under the warm asparagus. A side of broccolini that ought to be warm but isn’t treads on oil, too. “That’s just the way it would be in Tuscany,” my mate the Road Food Warrior points out. “Don’t I complain there, too?” I ask, wanting a point for being consistent. Happily, tangy tomato sauce has replaced the recklessly rich cream in the still-lush but now safely edible potato-gnocchi gratin. I love the aïoli, the mint, and the slivers of garlic that flavor oven-baked artichokes, and the musk of anchovy in leeks vinaigrette. If only I could drain off the oil into a potted plant. Huge uncut leaves of romaine salad make delicious finger food. I divide the single anchovy, segregated on its lonely crouton, among the three of us. There is a lackadaisical summer-weekend feel in the house this Saturday. Maybe it’s a seasonal virus, slowing the city’s pulse with the weekend mass exodus to potato-field chateaux and social enclaves north of Yonkers. Even hyperactive and dysfunctional family reunions on the Jersey shore have to be more fun than catering to demanding stay-at-homes like us. Tonight’s fritto misto with too many empty curls of breading batter is a pitiful rendition of the beauty we tasted opening week. And the seafood brodetto with tasteless spaghettini is a listless washout.

But there’s new pizzazz to the cavatelli with broccolini, pepper flakes, and garlic crumbs, and better balance in fava-bean ravioli with mushrooms and butter. Cornish hen comes surprisingly moist from the brick oven on a warm and wonderful vinegary bread salad with tomatoes, olives, and arugula. Excellent crumbed veal cutlet totes the essential garden – cucumber, tomato, and red onion. The Florentine-style strip loin is fine, but the burger on a semolina roll with roast peppers, aïoli, and cheese is even better. And the garlicky fries are so good we send out for seconds. A sudden silence punctuates the musical inferno. Sheer bliss. Then it picks up again. I recognize the theme from Charlie’s Angels. Our acoustical distress has apparently registered. What an insult. Also, those of us who can’t get enough rhubarb might like fewer strawberries in the crostata. That’s just a quibble, but putting white-chocolate mousse in the cannoli would be grounds for a blood feud in Sicily. Stick to macerated fruit in zabaglione, the chocolate torta, and lemon panna cotta with blueberry-and-dried-cherry compote. Best of all, several prices have been smartly lowered since the opening. Pastas are now $12 to $15, entrées $13.50 to $22.

At elevenish, youthquakers stuck in the city for the weekend have mostly marched off. The birds and the bees, I hope. I decide we should leave, too, before the D.J. disses us again with a medley by Doris Day.

Cibi-Cibi, 200 East 60th Street (751-8615). Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; brunch, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner, daily 5:30 p.m. to midnight. No reservations. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.

The Santos have taken us on a global merry-go-round in their monolithic corridor of a room at 206 East 60th. Stamperl, an Austrian ski chalet, lasted just six months. Without stretching a seam of its stucco dress, it went southwestern as the hit Arizona 206 in 1985, annexing the shop next door for a lower-price café. With a quick exchange of bric-a-brac, new velvety tweed upholstery, and a bronze pony parked out front, it is now hitched to the pan-American boomlet as Bolívar. “Joe wanted an Argentine steak house,” says executive chef Andy D’Amico. “So we all went to Buenos Aires. But I thought we should do more. I got him to let Bolívar chef Larry Kolar and his team explore Peru.” Never meant to be slavishly authentic, the menu traffics in sancocho (coconut-chicken broth), molho campanha (a fresh-vegetable salsa), boniata fritas, aji, and plantain dough. Any one of these could become as American as polenta and frites in the next fifteen minutes.

I’d become so caught up in the rush of ambitious spring restaurant openings that I’d forgotten how much I liked Bolívar till I came back for a business lunch two weeks ago. Five of us were sharing Peruvian “cebiches,” made with sushi-grade seafood – lush chunks of rosy tuna with avocado and frisée in a pepper sauce, and fluke tossed with red onion, serrano chiles, and lime juice. We divided arepas, the Colombian corn cakes gone haute with crème fraîche, plus the wonderful cabrales salad with tomatoes and iceberg and romaine. I would have ordered every tamale and empanada on the lunch menu, but surrounded by sleek deaconesses from the school of denial, I meekly ordered the lobster chupe, a chowder with pepper purée, potatoes, corn, rice, peas, and a perfect poached egg. Soup, sublime soup, it sounded so innocent.

I return a few nights later with unabashed eaters – yes, these are pickled-garlic people. We’ve gone through two little bowls of them. Peppery little citrus salsas brighten the night’s special grilled heads-on shrimp and luscious croquettes of wild mushroom and chorizo. The chopped pan-American vegetable salad is all crunch – jícama, roasted corn, radicchio, endive, red onion, and tomato in a chili vinaigrette – even better than I remember. The four of us have eaten all the mussels, but my pals are spooning up the last drop of the slightly spicy onion and corn-beer-spiked sauce, with its tingle of dried peppers and turmeric. A choice of sides that used to cost extra now comes free with entrées from the parrilla (Argentine grill), like tonight’s first-rate veal chop, the sirloin strip, and, for me, a heavenly mixed grill of sweetbreads, blood sausage, chorizo, and fatty charred short ribs billed as “asado.” An earthy chimichurri sauce is meant for dipping. But the special wild bass is too rare for the friend who ordered it, and he’s sulking because he asked for tartar sauce and the waiter refused. “It looks ugly all alone on the plate,” he complains, comforting himself with butter-and-cheese-whipped mashed yuca gratin and a handful of the top-notch fries. A heap of big, fat onion rings in a woody crust that could intimidate a termite goes back to the kitchen barely dented. Happily, I asked for the broccoli without its coconut butter – the perfectly steamed green is a sane antidote to this delicious excess, but it’s quickly negated by a round of desserts: coffee-etched chocolate cake with dulce de leche ice cream, wonderful almond pudding cake with apricot, refreshing ambrosia of fruit with passion-fruit cream and shaved fruit ice, and the too-sweet sorbet that nobody wants to eat.

Joe Santo is quick to confess he knows nothing about food. He leaves that to executive chef D’Amico. “The bar is my baby,” Santo confides, showing off a collection of prestige tequilas. Design is his secret passion. I suspect he ordered the bizarre plaster protuberances with painted red flames in Bolívar’s back alcove. And he actually made the lamps on either end of the bar, piling one flat stone on top of another so he could recycle two of the faux-copper shades that once hung over Arizona’s bar. Get ready to duck: Hundreds of restaurant artifacts are still in storage. Soon the previously announced Domus will open somewhere, or maybe it will be called Domus by the Sign of the Dove. “It’s all in flux,” says D’Amico. And perhaps Arizona will have a second life in the year 2000. But who knows where. New York is a tough town. Even its lemmings have minds of their own. So it’s good business to keep morphing.

Bolívar, 206 East 60th Street (838-0440). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 3 p.m.; brunch, Saturday and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.; dinner, daily 5:30 to 11 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.

Second Thyme Around