Cooking Backward

I am a warm person (so my family and friends tell me), a sentimental soul, even. But I am not the least bit nostalgic. I cringe at the idea of singing “Edelweiss” by following a bouncing ball. I think stepping into a hansom cab is an invitation to a reekathon rather than an excursion back to turn-of-the-century charm. Much as they lit up my past, I don’t pine for Jahn’s ice-cream parlors (Schrafft’s for Jews), the old planetarium, blotter acid, the original Dean & DeLuca, or Nik-Nik shirts. In fact, the unwritten cardinal rule about style – that you can wear a trend only once in your lifetime – has always struck me as not only smart but almost universally applicable.

Well, I’d done Mr. Chow (so to speak) back in the seventies and eighties. And I’d stopped going to Mr. Chow. So why, after more than a decade of abstinence, would I want to go back? Because all these young ‘uns and acting-like-young-’uns told me I had to. After all, Puffy and Co. loved it. Half of Seventh Avenue, appropriately in the midst of a terrifying eighties revival, has rediscovered it. In the words of a new convert, “It’s such a kick in the pants.” So, momentarily forsaking that sagacious rule of style, I went, and my deepest regret is that I never got to kick anyone in the pants. But I wanted to.

Mr. Chow was always a stunning room, a gleaming subterranean box of pale lacquer and smoked mirrors with a set of Lalique doors you’d unhinge and run off with in the middle of the night if you thought you could get away with it. The restaurant’s initial popularity fed on three elements: an upscale setting in which to serve art-directed Chinese fare, the sophistication of proprietor Michael Chow, and the bewitching presence of his second wife, the late Tina Chow, one of those chosen humans whose every move is a textbook example of living well. But eating well was never a factor. The flourish of using then-uncommon satay sticks and steam baskets, plus the mystery surrounding gambie – a green that waiters swore was seaweed (how about deep-fried slivered collard greens?) – obscured a meal that wouldn’t pass muster with a dishwasher at the Mandarin Inn on Mott Street.

But the young man next to us wearing the New Jersey Devils sweatshirt, the heavy silver bike chain, and the Perfetto baggy sweats doesn’t remember any of this. All he knows is that his Bebe-bedecked girlfriend is tickled to death to be here, clicking her Hard Candied nails on the table as she scans the room for a sign of Jennifer Lopez. Instead, she sees a roomful of people dressed just like herself, scanning right back in vain. If that’s not disappointing enough, their waiter approaches with all the grace of a wrecking ball and proceeds to withhold menus, as is the custom, in favor of getting permission “to put together a menu of our favorites.” Funny, he said the same thing to us. Funny, they get served exactly the same food as we do. Funny, so does everyone else. What’s not funny, however, is that all of it sucks.

The vermilion-dyed meat that comes on the sticks – what the hell is it? Chicken? Pork? Burlap? It doesn’t pay to ask: Just push it away. Pork dumplings, or potstickers, if you will. So aptly named: They’re like shards of hot dog wrapped in latex. Diced squab actually has flavor – from the hoisin it’s drowning in. Take some of the rice home for those loose tiles in the bathroom. The infamous collard greens are now served so reheated as to be distinguishable from packing material by color only. And finally, our waiter’s favorite, sweet-and-sour “special lobster” – basically caramelized shrimp balls that are kind of nifty if you think of them as seafood-flavored Cracker Jacks. Not only is the quality consistent, but everything arrives ten degrees shy of cold. Luckily, we’ve been served two rounds of Cosmopolitans at room temperature, so at least we can tell our moms we had a hot meal.

Mr. Chow is not cheap. And it’s not good. And it employs nobody gracious. Your reservation is as confirmed as an economy seat on Olympic Airways in August. The green-tea ice cream actually tastes green. But our waiter told us Puffy likes it. If only I knew as much as he did about food – and class.

Around the corner from Mr. Chow used to be Sandro’s, a sanctuary from the eighties overkill that begat so many grand cafés, yards of alligator sausage, and tians of boar with quinoa-kiwi flan. Though Sandro Fioriti took over too big a space, he almost filled it with his expansive personality and a capacity to cook as if you’d come for dinner at his home. Tell him you relished a specific dish, like his crispy fried artichokes, and he’d eagerly yank you into the kitchen and show you how to make them (he fried them in an empty tomato-paste can). His fans were devoted; they took on the air of a cult (a cult rapidly learning how to cook). But cults rarely cover big overhead. And Sandro virtually vanished to the Caribbean about nine years ago, leaving those who savored his simple and simply wonderful fare stranded in the kingdom of salmon-kumquat pizza.

The yellow awning announcing the return of Sandro’s was therefore cause for both rapturous expectation and the fear inherent in reviving a memory. But sometimes you get lucky and the results can be surprisingly sweet, like fitting into dad’s Navy pea coat, or running into a former schoolmate who not only has done well but looks at least as good as (but not better than) you do. From the first bite of his meaty, musky, luscious chicken livers cloaked in sweet balsamic vinegar, it was obvious that Sandro’s is that rare moment from the past that happily finds its way into one’s future.

In a space (formerly Siena) of manageable size and unadorned informality, Sandro’s buoyant adaptations of Roman cuisine will finally be able to garner the attention they deserve. Anchovies in garlic and vinegar gleam, his signature artichoke leaves crackle, and you almost giggle hearing the sighs of satisfaction each time someone takes a spoonful of his dense egg-and-spinach-laden stracciatella. Only pedestrian fried calamari weakens a chain of appetizers that include mushrooms in herbs fresh as forest mist, mozzarella that slides like panne velvet over Nicole Kidman, and a blissfully fragrant carpaccio with Parmesan.

Anyone who dismisses spaghetti and meat sauce as cafeteria food never had Sandro’s rich bolognese of veal and beef. Thick bucatini jeweled with bacon, Pecorino cheese, tomato, and peppercorns is even stronger and more gratifying. Sea-urchin-filled ravioli with a sauce of chopped scallops, garlic, and tomatoes is a cold-weather essential, and another signature dish, spaghetti in lemon, seems startling at first, then irresistible.

Whole snapper for two is a deliciously cheap head trip to a seaside restaurant in Rimini. (Don’t let them take away the skin!) Baccala is not for the delicate of fork: It’s briny, bracing salt cod studded with tomato, onion, and potato. Better stick to the still-juicy golden-fried Cornish hen or a can’t-miss straccetti – beef grilled on just one side spiced with green herbs and olive oil. Lamb chops come overdone, and the breaded, pounded cotoletta di vitello is fine for a dish only a Milanese could love, certainly no match for the hearty, garlic-happy veal chop.

Desserts do not appear to be as dominant, and yet there’s something about the chocolate cake, chocolate tart, and apple cake that reminds you of the specialties favorite relatives bring over whenever invited to your house. Maybe their unfussy hominess increases their appeal; maybe it’s the apparent pride in making it. Liking this man’s polenta with raspberry sauce is inseparable from liking him. And I almost defy you not to. Sandro is proof that if you can’t go home again, at least you can go to someone else’s place. As long as that someone else doesn’t make you eat with chopsticks.

Cooking Backward