One man can make a difference. Any place inaugurated as an alternative to an anachronism like “21” begins just a lawn-jockey’s-arm’s length away from parody, and at least for its first year Patroon was not my snifter of Hennessy XO. Owner Ken Aretsky deliberately and successfully devised it as a haven for the new generation of media machers who have traded in their Armani suits for Purple Label because Ralph’s shoulder pads are a lot bigger. Settled into the room’s plushly curved banquettes as if they were corner offices, these guys boast about crunched numbers and trade thick cigars with rabid satisfaction, not only provoking the suspicion that Freud may have had it wrong about a stogie’s ever being just a good smoke but also raising a question: Has eating well ever been a priority at Patroon, or is paying big bucks for a meal just one more Bradshavian male-bonding ritual?
Consistent as the food has been, it always came up a little short. Just as the dining room’s décor is studiously neutral, the kitchen is damned by faint beige. Perhaps hearty but unobtrusive fare was a conscious decision: no distractions, not even great food, to interfere with the intense strategy and marketing talk. If so, then Aretsky should never have hired Geoffrey Zakarian away from the Royalton’s “44” several months ago. Because, from the first distracting bite of his brawny, almost lascivious terrine of lamb breast flanked by vibrant bits of tomato and mango, it’s obvious this chef has no intention of playing second fiddle to any publisher’s adjusted rate card or account executive’s ad pitch. Everything about Zakarian’s cooking boisterously proclaims a passion for big flavors, bright contrasts. Maybe he would have been better off as a caterer, bolstering special days, since I can’t imagine eating this food without giving in to the delight that’s been taken in its presentation. If this man doesn’t love eating as much as he does cooking, then his performance in Patroon’s kitchen is an even slyer con job than George Clooney’s honey-dipped bank heist in Out of Sight. The result is that without altering the clientele, or peeling off one roll of the moribund wall fabric, Zakarian has given this tight-ass room one spectacularly energizing kick in the butt. Even Aretsky seems to be walking around with more spring in his step. And why shouldn’t he? He gets to eat here every day.
With more lavish resources at his fingertips, Zakarian has gained in daring and polish. A risotto wonderfully velvetizes the heady flavors of escargot and summer truffles. Flecks of ginger continually jab a lobster out of its creamy tranquillity. Weightless scallops find some bite thanks to the edginess of roast endive and celery. And though every chef in town is throwing fruit all over foie gras, the unexpected and hardly sweet use of green apple and kale affords his rendition a fresh snap. And instead of oh-yeah goat cheese alongside arugula, radicchio, and watercress, they get pleasantly ambushed by a Stilton brioche.
If you can’t get someone to share the organic chicken for two with you at night, come back in the daytime, when single portions are offered. Lamb porterhouse is not as exciting as the terrine appetizer, but the succulent skate, bejeweled with Jerusalem artichokes and in an asparagus crust, is a stunner with a nuttiness as addictive as that of warmed cashews.
Because the “boys in the front room” regulars are known for their medium-to-well-done taste, ask to have the duck breast a little underdone – it blends better with the braised salsify and pancetta. Do the same with the red snapper with red lentils. Two seafood dishes that float – cod in a bath of truffle broth, and lobster in one faintly laced with curry – are luscious as they are, and except for JUdson Grill’s, you won’t find better onion rings anywhere. And if you really want to test your friends’ loyalties, order one portion of the ravioli stuffed with artichoke, pheasant, and tomato and watch how many decades-long ties that bind, personal or corporate, get unstrung before it’s time to share dessert.
That would be too bad, because Zakarian knows something that lately seems to be eluding pastry chefs. Americans prefer cold desserts. Even warm treats find greater favor when they have at least some chilled elements: His caramelized bananas are stroked by white-chocolate cream, a soothing chocolate-pudding cake needs even more Earl Grey ice cream, and the shaved-apple tart is sensational. Want to seduce a client? Forget the cigar and the four-color-presentation. Serve the tart and he’ll be putty in your hands. Patroon proves that the most exciting mergers are ones of passion, not convenience. Aretsky and Zakarian make a great team; more than their clients, they demonstrate the art of the deal.
Patroon, 160 E. 46th Street (883-7373). Lunch, Monday through Friday 12 to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10 p.m, Thursday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards.
It looks as if one woman can make a difference, too. And if the change at Luma doesn’t seem as drastic as the overhaul at Patroon, that shouldn’t minimize new chef Christina Kelly’s talent. It’s just that Luma had already undergone a marked transformation four years ago (though not of its sponge-painted décor, unfortunately) when Scott Bryan replaced former chef and co-owner Eric Stapleman and upgraded his already innovative, macro-inspired cooking. Bryan’s richer, more expansive menu – without troweling on the butter and cream – was worth every delicious extra calorie.
Kelly, who is Bryan’s protégée, has this absolutely lovely knack for investing each element of a dish with its own striking acuity, yet the sum is not only harmonious but almost weightless. A crackling shrimp summer roll bursts with gentle blasts of mango, purple basil, and wasabi. The brine of warm dandelions is lushly tempered with prosciutto and the earthiness of wild mushrooms. Sesame seared tuna soars past sushi placidity with pea shoots and minted cucumbers, and fresh pea soup with mint and crème fraîche is as delightful as summer rain.
Passion-fruit sauce and scallion purée make soft-shell crabs a new experience. Buttery pan-seared lamb chops are coated in just enough olive sauce. Snapper is super with a stuffing of Swiss chard and leeks, and even a vegetarian mushroom risotto with stuffed red pepper earns notice. In addition, the $45 prix fixe dinner is a helluva deal. Four courses of food so invigorating and so gratifying, and yet you leave feeling lighter than your lime semifreddo. Congrats, Ms. Kelly. And right on, Mr. Zakarian. Forget the majority. Power to the person.
Luma, 200 Ninth Avenue, at 22nd Street (633-8033). Dinner only, Monday through Friday 6:00 to 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards.