I need all of you who enjoy the art of dining – especially when it revolves around sensuously executed seafood – to do me a big favor. I want you to call Aleutia and make a reservation for dinner. But it has to be on a night between Wednesday and Saturday, and you’re to insist on sitting upstairs. I know this sounds pushy, but, forgive me, I’m desperate. And trust me, it’s not like this is a mercy mission – you won’t be sorry. Not when you’re faced with velvety yet vibrant salmon “ménage à trois” with a bracing shower of sesame seeds, or the wonderfully limp, sweet garnet-red-and-cream beet “noodles” under a goat-cheese gratin.
Lovely, sophisticated dishes like this are a given at Aleutia. And if those of you who, like me, consider an evening out as something you do with a fork in hand, arrive en masse and command as much dining area as possible, you can have a lovely, sophisticated evening, too. What do I get out of this? Well, besides mass fervent gratitude, the Mother Teresa- worthy honor of rescuing a potentially estimable restaurant and chef from being obliterated by that overeager, overloud, and leather-overcoated infestation known as the bar crowd.
Now, a roomful of green-apple-martini and Anchor Steam guzzlers is hardly deserving of derision. Who can blame the management of a new spot for initially sighing with relief when gaggles of well-tressed ones gather round their bar stools like drones to a honey pot? After all, booze is to a restaurant what accessories are to Gucci: a profit lifeline. And most any owner choosing a Lower Park Avenue address such as this one is begging for the overflow of the curious and cluster-prone, who normally accumulate at one of the many so-called fashionable spots in the area. But what comes out of the kitchen at those well-packed joints wouldn’t pass muster with a serious diner. First, those dishes are simply a way of anchoring drinkers for at least one more round while awaiting sustenance. Then they are a means of serving salt, which encourages more thirst. Nobody complains, because the memory of a brilliant meal is not what those patrons are looking to go home with.
At Aleutia, during lunch and dinner early in the week, none of this is the case – yet. Amid the tranquillity of this airy two-story space one can dream of Aleutia’s bright future, which one hopes will soon include sound-proofing, air purifiers, some softer lighting upstairs, and a row of curtains to frame the L-shaped loft (which would both soften it and obscure the view of the brightly lit neighboring CVS pharmacy).
On those slow days, one is also able to leisurely enjoy the ministrations of a staff that’s almost too serious and determined. Partially this is because they want you to share their respect for chef Gavin Citron’s skills. And he deserves it. Having gone almost unnoticed uptown at Celadon, Citron shouldn’t suffer the same fate twice. Not when he can conjure steamed truffle dumplings packed with a dense duxelle of wild mushrooms and flecked with bits of prosciutto swathed in a rustic dough of semolina spiked with sake. Citron grills octopus until it’s sultry and smoky, then adds opaline orbs of cod cheeks to soak up a rich black-currant-and-caper broth. He fills rice-paper shells to bursting with herb-poached lobster, crab, and chunks of ripe avocado. Diced-tuna sushi has an icy heat, like aluminum-tinned mints, although it doesn’t come with nearly as many toasted shrimp rice crackers as you could eat (how about two dozen!). Lush strips of pancetta wrap a pearlescent chunk of cod on a crudely appealing bed of pork-rib hash. All Citron’s soups – winter-vegetable, tomato-fennel, cauliflower – are coarse and feisty, the way winter wants them to be.
But part of the staff’s solemnity comes from having seen the enemy, which is downstairs, at the bar. Making its way to the dining room upstairs. And après Wednesday, Aleutia suffers le deluge. Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter that Citron’s lobster hot pot with burnt-orange-and-saffron dashi is as sexy a stew as anything the Witches of Eastwick could conjure, if that table of eight next to you is “just having drinks” and behaving accordingly. Why tout the mistral-clean scent of a citrus-spiked ahi if a booth crammed with six is merely splitting a molten chocolate cake (“with a candle, please; it’s for her birthday”) and advising, “Maybe we’ll have something later, when the others come.”
One expects the tumult and smoke downstairs. One would be naïve to hit anywhere on Lower Park and expect otherwise. (The same rude shock of success is sideswiping Todd English’s fans across the street when they first enter Olives.) But when
a lusciously tender venison loin smoked on birchwood and served with a snappy pistachio-nut ragout is priced at $32, and a hearty duck breast with skin that crackles like a hickory fire comes in at $26, who wants to sit next to those who think they’re poolside at the Delano?
That’s why you must go, ascend, infiltrate, and usurp, drive the Cosmo-scented hordes downstairs where they can flourish or be fondled if they so choose. That way, there may even be room for chef Citron’s talent to rise – if only to the top of the stairs. Think of the taking of Aleutia as a sit-in where they serve terrific seared sea scallops and succulent slow-basted salmon, and where you will not be moved until you’ve had Citron’s delicious meyer-lemon meringue. Follow me, and let us hope that Aleutia will overcome.
Aleutia (220 Park Avenue South, at 18th Street; 212-529-3111). Lunch, Mon.-Fri. noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Wed. 5:30-11 p.m., Thurs.-Sat till 11:30 p.m. Appetizers, $10 to $16; entrées, $25 to $32. A.E., M.C., V.