There is no sign outside, just a big red banner with Chinese calligraphy. Squint a bit, and it almost reads AZ. The lounge, doors open to the street, tunnels back into red-lantern-lit shadow, funky, noisy, and crowded with real people oblivious to fashion – neither Moomba nor Mercer Street. No more than one might expect on West 17th, with its heaving sidewalks and after-dusk tincture of abandon. I try to pretend I don’t feel 100 years old waiting for our table in the restaurant above while sipping a wasabi-spiked bloody “mAry’Z” (as the menu coyly insists) in this, the latest bar-lounge playground of grouping, groping, and discounted grazing. Remembering the previous tenant, Flowers, and its Astroturf-carpeted roof, I’m not expecting much. It’s not the first time this week I’ve flung myself at the mercy of a chef with Asian-fusion illusions, an increasingly lame alibi for exploiting global kitchens from Borneo to Minsk – excuse me, Armenia to Zanzibar.
Finally a hostess in skin-tight red satin, deeply cleaved and slit to the hip – but midwestern-cheerleader-friendly – takes us in the glass elevator to the rooftop aerie, then surrenders us to a trio of dark suits with shaved heads. Very Bond. What a shock to see how handsomely Flowers’ do-it-yourself roost has been gussied up with a retractable glass roof, polished dark wood, a slate wall of water that cascades into a fish pond, indirect light below and pleated sea-urchin shades above casting soft illumination – enough for eyes over 40 to scan the menu, with its $52 prix fixe, and the $10 specialty-cocktails list. A “dArk & Ztormy” rum and ginger beer for me.
Looking closer at textured windows, party lanterns, bare brick, wavy fun-house mirrors alternating with portholes framed in studded metal, I wonder if someone cleaned up at a Pier 1 fire sale. But once we’re settled into a cozy booth, it doesn’t feel offensive. Actually, all four of us are distracted by the full blast of our captain’s ebullience. He’s got more opinions than the narrator in Our Town. And I’m not sure I’m finding enlightenment in the I Ching vision of the wine list, divided by symbols of sun, wind, and mist into “Wines of Brightness and Spice,” “Wines of Subtlety,” “Wines of Sensuality.” But when the waiter sets down a small platter with three charming little bowls of lively condiments – date-tamarind sauce, cauliflower chutney, and garlicky white-bean purée to spread on the warm triangles of spicy flat bread – we are putty in chef Patricia Yeo’s Cuisinart. And what are these crispy shards? we ask. “Matzo by Tom Cat Bakery” is the reply that spins the globe again. Every dish cries out for a camera to record the striking pottery, deep jade-and-turquoise bowls, before the mouth engages the complex textures and audacious flavors. A dozen detours unleashed these sensibilities in Yeo: biochemistry at Princeton, classes at the New York Restaurant School taken as a lark, a switch in gears to follow Bobby Flay to Miracle Grill, then a stint as sous-chef at Mesa Grill, and later total immersion in Asian food philosophy at Barbara Tropp’s China Moon in San Francisco.
At times the captain’s bumptious prattle sets my teeth on edge, but mostly I’m caught up in the chef’s poetry: sublime asparagus-and-crab soup with a crab spring roll alongside. Tender tea-smoked quail with a crusty scallion pancake. Coriander-crusted tuna, bizarrely but deliciously paired with warm-oxtail salad. Elegant duck schnitzel in hazelnut brown butter (lusty relief from the boredom of sliced duck breast). Porcini-crusted cod, mysteriously nutty. Steamed day-boat halibut with slivers of Chinese sausage. Less than six weeks old, the menu will keep evolving. Every night the condiments will change – peppery Moroccan harissa perhaps, caponata, intriguing apricot mustard. And there are flaws to correct – too salty puddles of soy, an overdry double pork chop, a steak without character made even nerdier by slicing. But pastry chef Heather Miller’s lemon-ginger ice and the passion-fruit panna cotta are definite keepers. And the plum-wine broth with litchi sorbet and cherries in its turquoise bowl is so refreshing and exhilarating, I’ll probably ignore the brown-butter coconut tart. But that doesn’t mean anyone else should.
Often in this fiercely competitive town, I find a cleverly designed restaurant where the lighting is better than a face-lift and the chef has talent and daring, yet nothing makes me really want to go back. I’ve scarcely given AZ time to jell, but I keep finding excuses to return. It’s too soon to know if coddled Upper East Side preppies or the nomadic brat pack will commandeer the lounge. If so, I’ll have to bring my own folding table and chairs for another taste of Yeo’s marvelous downstairs menu: her meltingly tender fried calamari and the spicy tuna tartare on crisp curls of fried nori, or the brilliant sushi platter – a yin and yang of tuna and spicy sambal mayonnaise, tempura asparagus rolled in bonito flakes, and crab with sweet-and-sour mustard. Not to overlook her stand-up Yukon-gold-potato knish with its plop of Osetra. Didn’t I say Minsk, or are we in Kraków?
AZ, 21 West 17th Street (212-691-8888). Dinner, Monday to Wednesday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Thursday to Saturday till 11:30 p.m. Lounge open Monday through Thursday till midnight, Friday and Saturday till 2 a.m. All major credit cards.
I guess there’s no denying that taste is in the eye and mouth of the beholder-chewer. How else to explain my fussy food friend’s enthusiasm for Revel? To me it is still an embryo, yet another aggressively overpriced and tentative new restaurant. The insufferably snobby old pros who ran the departed Parioli Romanissimo never quite tamed this oddly broken-up 81st Street townhouse space, with its wonderful backroom skylight. And Barolo veteran Paolo Secondo hasn’t totally solved its wanderings, either. Though I like the glowing red wall in the bar. And there is a certain cool glamour in the spare-verging-on-bare design of pale Ultrasuede chairs against red banquettes and glowing sea-urchin sconces, the same we spied on the chandeliers at AZ, bigger and prettier here, very Mary McFadden.
Music so far away it registers as a thoughtless neighbor’s and lights that dim and dim again as the clock ticks on and the kitchen dawdles soon tax the charm. The night we came with my pal, the Revel reveler, she asked for Parmesan ice cream and out came exactly that, drizzled with balsamic vinegar, fabulous on any of the first-rate breads. Apparently this droll mutant comes only with the parchment-baked baby vegetables unless you specifically ask. As an automatic offering, it might disarm and defang those few of us not yet so intoxicated by just-hatched zillions that we gleefully spend $75 per person for the most ordinary or uneven dinner, and let eager but misguided waiters practice on us. I don’t care how rich the neighborhood is or what Café Boulud charges five blocks away. How dare Revel think to make friends with less than a dozen wines under $40? Indeed, sensitive to such criticism, the house has already rolled back menu prices, the newest publicist informs me. I count four items reduced by $1, and $2 has been sliced off the steak – leaving appetizers $9 to $15, entrées $16 to $28. And the thick rib-eye that thrilled my steak-loving mate on our first visit with the crisp fried herbs I couldn’t stop eating is now larded with fat and gristle, a lusterless contender, the herbs so spiky I’m taking them home for my pigeons to build their next nest with.
I’m not going to say anything about the dowdy crowd – it’s a Saturday in June, and we all know only the most wretchedly uncool are to be found lingering in town. And granted, I’m pleased to eat thinly sliced cremini mushrooms tossed with Gruyère, celery, and arugula, or crisp leaves of romaine coated with Gorgonzola dressing. Tonight’s snapper seviche with lime and fingernail clippings of red pepper is an exquisite balance of sweet and citric. But the shrimp threaded on licorice root is as likely to be rubbery as not, and a fairly decent crab cake is lost in lentil mush (not at all the spicy lentil salad advertised on the menu). A salad of osso buco with blue potatoes and salsa verde is as weird as it sounds.
Pappardelle with oven-dried tomatoes and shredded caciotta cheese, or the tiny pasta squiggles called trofie with pesto, string beans, and potato (needing only salt) are good bets among the less-expensive offerings. But I can scarcely find the elusive kick of balsamic vinegar that might jazz up the dull leek-and-prosciutto sauce on over-al dente garganelli. To me, the red snapper is dry, the hard-edged salmon has little flavor, and the sea bream is unduly strong. One night’s veal-chop special seems almost pathetically listless as I remember the supernal rack of veal that was Parioli’s pride. Those were the days when it was the most expensive Italian restaurant in town, before Cipriani blustered in flexing its pricing megalomania.
By the way, if you last long enough at Revel for dessert, stick to the tangy sorbets or the berry soup in saffron broth (if you don’t mind the medicinal taint of rosemary) or, best of all, the sensational citrus terrine with Campari Jell-O and passion-fruit sauce. Avoid the tirami su – it’s unconstructed. You have to dip the stupid ladyfingers in espresso yourself. I’m thinking of billing the place $10 for labor and overtime.
Revel, 24 East 81st Street (212-249-5720). Lunch, Monday to Friday noon to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Sunday 6 p.m. to midnight. All major credit cards.