Successful restaurateurs couldn’t have been impressed when that Scottish doc cloned himself some woolly new livestock. After all, these guys were replicating their cash cows long before Dr. Wilmut made sure Dolly could never go away again. There are two Republics, three Zen Palates, two Briccos, three Sarabeth’s, three Time Cafes, four Mary Ann’s, and, though you’re better off gnawing gorditas on a park bench, eight Empire Szechuans.
Over the past few years, however, there have been more and more owners and chefs who are not content to mimeograph past triumphs, and who repeatedly challenge themselves and their clientele with new and blessedly unrelated food endeavors. Bobby Flay traced the source of the heat generated by his inspired southwestern cuisine at Mesa Grill back to its fountainhead in Spain and conjured up Bolo. With the aid of a U.N. Assembly-ful of chefs, Drew Nieporent takes us to France (Montrachet), to New York (Tribeca Grill), to the Mideast (Layla), to Japan (Nobu), and, most recently, on his own version of Fantastic Voyage (Heartbeat). Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Sybilline diversity is the most startling of all. His four Manhattan outposts (Jean Georges, JoJo, Vong, and Mercer Kitchen) have little in common except a love of root vegetables and unwavering excellence. Even Danny Meyer, who could probably reproduce Union Square Cafe with Planet Hollywood abandon, has found new inspiration at Indian spice markets and has come up with the most seductive restaurant of his growing empire, Tabla.
Now Steve Tzolis and Nicola Kotsoni are taking another turn at the wheel. Previously, they helped initiate our ceaseless craving for Tuscan food with Il Cantinori. Then they opened Periyali and proved that not all Greek food is found turning vertically on a spit. Next, Chez es Saada gave us Morocco without dust and flies. This time, with The Tonic, they’ve finally turned their attention to America, and the result provides further compelling evidence that restlessness and risk-taking may be the coolest trend to hit eating since chefs gave up their fascination with the kiwi.
The Tonic, one incredibly ambitious enterprise, has four connected parts. The first is a restrained but engaging two-tiered dining room marked by Kotsoni’s signature floral explosions and embraced by amber light from three old Masonic Lodge chandeliers that make you regret ever having heard the word halogen. Next door, in the old Harvey’s Chelsea space (the brass-railed restaurant that for some reason no one liked but everyone remembers), is the Tavern. It has a separate menu, Harvey’s magnificent old mahogany bar, and a set of banquettes that demand the kind of posture that would make a West Pointer wince. (But who’s sitting? At night, the place is as raucous as a meeting of Ralph Kramden’s International Order of Loyal Raccoons.) A quieter, upstairs lounge begs for a jukebox playing “The Days of Wine and Roses.” And on the third floor, there’s an expansive and handsome private dining room.
Though the main room’s menu is more intricate and imposing, the Tavern’s offerings aren’t exactly tossed onto plastic plates and served with a side of Ruffles. You won’t find a better fish and chips, Yankee pot roast, or endive salad, the latter with slices of duck prosciutto and Granny Smith apples. Two separate menus, one high, one low, may seem like daunting double duty for one chef, but the task seems to have energized Chris Gesualdi. At Montrachet, his food always had sheen and elegance, but too often there was a tentativeness that seemed at odds with his preference for Mediterranean flavors – as if he were making dinner to please my parents. But at Tonic’s main room, he’s finally playing on the open strings. A flash of saffron and a spray of bacon make a lacquer-bright pumpkin bisque sparkle. A dash of citrus and a counterpoint of brash seaweed turn raw tuna into something far more pleasing than just another numbing tuna carpaccio.
In fact, all of Gesualdi’s appetizers are as unforced and appealing as the staff that recommends them. Velouté of weightlessly diced bay scallops has a perfume of leeks to thank for its allure. An alliance with salsify emboldens sweetbread ravioli in a truffle broth. Smoked salmon is brusquely tempered with bluepoint oysters, capers, and caviar. Crabmeat profits from being teamed with poached shrimp and green beans. A wonderfully smooth goat cheese virtually melts around sweet beets and pine nuts. And best of all, foie gras atop a chestnut purée, braced with butternut squash and roasted apples, is almost too much of a good thing. Almost.
With his entrées, Gesualdi still hedges a few bets, but not enough to cause second-act slump. Foie gras-stuffed guinea hen (oh, do it again!) in sage and Marsala is a soothing winter dish. Truffle-crusted salmon in coral-and-red wine sauce is superbly realized. Garnet-rare venison in black-currant sauce is as savvy a pairing as Stoppard with Gwyneth. Sweet roast chicken is hardly an also-ran, surrounded as it is by a purée of potato and porcini and a sauce of honey and shallots. And the mushroom risotto is a great choice for the center of the table. But why isn’t the cocotte of braised meats more robust? Rack of lamb and five-spiced Muscovy duck are both beautifully prepared, just as the John Dory with tomato and the sea bass with fennel are both tender as a child’s first yawning, but the results are too placid. Now that I know Gesualdi can knock my socks off, I want nothing less than fork-driven lust.
Have faith. A roasted-pear napoleon, lemon-raspberry gratin, and chocolate-brioche pudding will restore ardor. For additional seduction, import the innovative raspberry-tart crème brûlée or the unexpectedly appealing tirami su from the Tavern menu. Or as a treat, indulge in one of the delightful dessert wines from the house’s diverse list and toast the fact that unlike the fields of Broadway, television, or Seventh Avenue – where most of the top players are currently behaving like cloned sheep – many movers behind the food we eat have decided it’s more fun to be shakers. And the Tonic is an invigorating way to get all shook up.
The Tonic, 108-110 West 18th Street (929-9755). The Tavern, Mondays through Thursdays noon to 11 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays till midnight. The Dining Room, Mondays through Thursdays 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays till 11 p.m. A.E., M.C., V.