Sapa. Photo credit: Kenneth Chen.
Recently, I was approached about my interest in hosting an Iron Chef–type show being pitched to the Food Network, tentatively titled Kitchen Smackdown! No fan of violence, but tickled by the image of master chefs cowed into submission, I asked if the show’s “Royal Rumble” would feature Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud as a tag team, or if I’d get to apply a hammerlock on Lidia Bastianich. Nope, I was told, younger, less-well-known local chefs were being sought for the competition, and the producer rattled off an impressive list of maverick kitchen warriors. I asked if she’d contacted Patricia Yeo. “Yes, but she declined,” the producer replied. “I gather she’s too shy.”True, Ms. Yeo is shy, and slight, too (she’s not much bigger than a stack of her imperial rolls). Yet, having followed Yeo’s career from her apprenticeships with Bobby Flay at Miracle Grill, Bolo, and Mesa in New York; her work at Barbara Tropp’s shrine-worthy China Moon; and then Hawthorne Lane (the last two in San Francisco), I know that her vibrant jumble of Southeast Asian and Southwestern cooking has consistently exhibited enough punch to take on all challengers. In a bout against the best from Avenue A or Clinton Street, I’d bet on Yeo.
The match that Yeo has yet to land, however, is a room that properly complements her skills. Her work at AZ, her first gig as head chef, won her deserved praise, but the place was clubby and crass, on a rooftop in a building with the charm of a Verizon switching station (the hostess desk was in front of the elevator bank). Pazo, which was next, was the opposite, a low-lit, underdressed room on the Upper East Side (now home to BLT Steak), a neighborhood where spiciness is often met with a reach for heart medication. One place too hot, one place too cold. While not exactly just right, Sapa could, with a few adjustments, finally do Yeo proud.
Sapa’s stark but stirring warehouse of a space is all the more remarkable when one realizes that its open, dramatically divided multilevel structure is achieved using Trading Spaces–grade materials—tea lights reflected against smoked mirrors, stretch netting used for lanterns and screens, wood-slatted walls built with stained one-by-threes and one-by-twos separated by brass bushing. For those who remember the eighties, Sapa bears a striking resemblance to Café Seiyoken, one of the grand cafés that first goosed the nocturnal food frenzy in that decade. But do you get what you pay for? The room is loud and cold, and the broken sight lines, and a lack of teamwork, frequently send the entire staff off in the same direction—away from you.
It’s all fixable. So is the confusing menu. This is Brian Matzkow’s first restaurant, and he naturally aims to please as many potential patrons as possible. Better Matzkow should trust in a menu edited to highlight Yeo’s strengths. Yeo does wonderful soups, but only one is offered: sweet potato laced with the heat of pumpkin-seed oil. Her pickled-mackerel salad with lemon-and-chili vinaigrette, green-papaya-and-hanger-steak salad, plus mussels and clams in a Thai green curry that tempers the soft scent of coconut milk with alternating blasts of cool kaffir lime and hot chili, are all potential signature dishes. So why bother with the same beet-and-goat-cheese salad, cheese fritters, or terrines you can get anywhere in the meatpacking district? Why not dump them and direct diners toward a surprising bowl of beef moo shu sparkled by a spiked hoisin sauce, a garlic-drenched brandade, or spare ribs more tantalizingly sour than sweet thanks to a smart dash of cocoa?
I can’t imagine anyone coming here, looking around, and exclaiming, “Can’t wait to have the rib eye!” So, although Yeo’s Stilton-drizzled version is fine, it’s no match for gorgeous slabs of duck breast with a sumptuous glaze of red curry and pineapple. Which itself is outshone by a pearls-of-swine “trio” of braised pork shoulder, grilled loin, and cubed slab bacon. Yeo prepares the only chicken I’ve tasted that benefits from tea brining. Snapper practically dances on the tongue to a three-ginger sauce. Overrated monkfish is awakened by black-bean oil. Even a chocolate bombe gets a brightening blast of spicy ancho-chili pepper.
Yeo has a rare talent for balancing sweet and savory, East and West. It doesn’t need to be held back by spring rolls, potato knishes, and lobster salad. Like Rocky Balboa, Sapa gotta let Patricia Yeo fly now. Because, spotlight seeking or not, the lady is a contender.
This week in Rio, it’s Carnival, when everyone goes crazy. Naturally, many of the city’s Brazilian restaurants love to evoke the atmosphere of their homeland at its wildest. But you’re more likely to leave Caviar & Bananas craving the former and going the latter, not because of unbridled joy but because this is such an unbalanced rush job of a restaurant. It’s as if Jeffrey Chodorow’s life depended on purging the ghost of Rocco DiSpirito from the premises (Rocco’s was at this address). But how can you steep anyone in the sultry, irresistible playfulness of Ipanema in a space that looks like the half-finished rec room of someone who fell in love with the décor of Gymboree? Not only is the world music lite more likely to fill an elevator than a sambadrome, the volume—I can’t believe I’m saying this—is too low. The diffuse, gray lighting is seduction-free. But the most curious part of the enterprise is supervising chef Claude Troigros’s baffling choice to fashion an intricate menu that’s relentlessly sugarcoated. Passion-fruit dressing, coconut, fruit chutneys, caramelized mango, papaya, and bananas abound. Root vegetables are cooked down to syrup. Raisins and tapioca here and there add injury. Half the dishes would be welcome at a kosher Sunday brunch. Salmon seviche tastes like lox, fruit purées beg for latkes; only the herring is missing. Much of the rest, like the moquecas, unaccountably has the lacquered taste of takeout Chinese. We took solace in the crunchy, meat-filled pasteis, and a superbly non-sweet sea bass cooked in ginger, saffron, and achiote. More of that, Claude! Otherwise, dessert, even the delicious signature Crêpe Passion, is a redundancy. Troigros is a terrific chef, the man who saved the Delano’s Blue Door in Miami when all hope seemed lost. But he has to rethink this menu. Chodorow has to redecorate this room. Otherwise, like Rocco’s, this place is going to get smacked down, too.
43 W. 24th St.; 212-929-1800.
Caviar & Bananas
12 E. 22nd St.; 212-353-0500.
Address: 43 W. 24th St., nr. Broadway; 212-929-1800
Hours: Lunch, Noon to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $15; entrées, $25 to $32.
Ideal Meal: Sweet-potato-and-pumpkin-seed soup, roast duck breast with a red-curry-and-pineapple glaze, chocolate bombe.
Note: Until they fix the heat, do not sit against the back wall.
Caviar & Bananas
Address: 12 E. 22nd St., nr. Broadway; 212-353-0500
Hours: Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to Midnight Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $17; entrées, $22 to $36.
Ideal Meal: Pasteis, sea bass, Crêpe Passion.
Note: The house jalapeño caipirinha not only isn’t sweet, it has the best kick of any new cocktail in town.