There’s a curious subconscious link between the palette of design and the palate of taste. Soothing hues of gray or ocean blue on a restaurant wall (Cello, Le Bernardin) tend to presage dishes of seafood, for instance. If you hooked a bunch of corpulent restaurant critics up like Skinner rats, you’d find darker, reddish colors make them salivate for unctuous brasserie foods (fat boudins, choucroute) and giant sides of beef. Which may be why my friend the food aristocrat – herself a former, not-so-corpulent restaurant critic – could barely contain her glee as she peered around the room at Marseille, the elegant new establishment on Ninth Avenue, in Hell’s Kitchen. The former bank space has been colored in ocher and orange and fashioned with a zinc bar and numerous blood-red leather banquettes. A great silver tub sits by the bar, brimming with iced bottles of wine, and when the food aristocrat spied it, she gave a theatrical foodie shudder of delight. “Where are my steak-frites?” she asked.
Nowhere, it turns out. Like the city it’s named for, Marseille is an opaque, various, and subtly sophisticated place, where things are not always what they seem. Begin with the little pre-appetizer portions of meze, which executive chef Alex Ureña (formerly of the famous El Bulli, outside Barcelona, Bouley Bakery, and Blue Hill) has divided into elemental categories: marinated seafood, vegetables, meat, and fish. These tiny smorgasbords are laid out on small rectangular trays in elegant, if minuscule, portions of three. Order all four of them, as we did (total cost: $27), and you’ll receive a bounty of midget-size treats: a mash of veal cheeks, liver, and short ribs wrapped in tiny, deep-fried phyllo cigars, tangles of sautéed squid infused with herbs and garlic, and savory, chorizo-like sausages stuffed with hanger steak and ground lamb.
These elegant little items set the tone for Ureña’s menu, which is a kind of dissertation on the pleasures (and pitfalls) of refined cooking done on the cheap. The first appetizer I sampled was a delicious cup of wild-mushroom soup ($7), served, like hot chocolate, with a whipping of Parmesan foam on top. The food aristocrat regained her equilibrium when a pyramid of haricot vert salad appeared, laced with blue cheese, walnuts, and slivers of crisp radicchio. After that came a mess of underdone sweetbreads and three marshmallow-size falafel croquettes made with rock shrimps. The latter dish was better than the former, although neither were as good as Ureña’s seafood lasagna, a soupy, herbaceous mixture of shrimps, mussels, and loads of fresh crabmeat, served between two layers of handmade pasta.
Because of Marseille’s Moroccan-tile floor – the décor is listed as “French Moroccan from the thirties and forties” in the restaurant’s literature – and domed ceiling, it’s difficult, on a busy night, to hear yourself think. To avoid undue confusion, stick to the simple house entrées, like roasted chicken (with a sweet cashew-nut purée and a sprinkling of sea salt), and the poached duck, which has the rich, gamy taste of venison but is tender enough to cut with a fork. Among beef items, I thought the delicately sliced sirloin could have been more hefty, and the short ribs were a little dry. Ureña’s pricey bouillabaisse ($24) was authentically rust-colored and loaded with rouget and cod (plus eccentric slices of potato and cabbage), and my table quickly cleaned plates of the salmon, crusted with a black-olive tapenade, and the halibut, which is poached and served in a restorative mushroom stew.
If it’s hefty brasserie food you want, the luncheon menu at Marseille includes a proper braised-veal-cheek sandwich (served on thick pita, with a stack of chickpea fries) and a delicious hungry-man’s rendition of the croque monsieur, constructed with buttery wedges of sourdough bread, smoked ham, and a toasted topping of Gruyère cheese. The desserts, composed by pastry chef Veronica Schwartz, are similarly rich and inventive without tipping too far over the top. We liked the delicate rounds of chocolate buñuelo filled with melty fudge, and the date sponge cake, which is soaked in caramel but manages to taste light and chewy at the same time. There’s also a crunchy peanut-butter tart, topped with an iridescent scoop of celery sorbet and speckled with crushed pistachios. It’s an artful dish, although the food aristocrat wishes me to state, for the record, that it tastes more like an homage to the suburban kitchens of Long Island (celery sticks, frozen Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, etc.) than anything from Morocco or old Marseille.
Rustic Italy is the supposed inspiration for the new midtown restaurant Moda, although the room, wedged in a corner of the lobby of the oddly named Flatotel on 52nd Street, looks like a modish swingers hangout, circa 1991. The mostly vacant lobby is scattered here and there with club chairs covered with cow hair. In the restaurant, the wood furniture is starkly black, the walls are a cool celadon green, and the towering banquettes on one side of the room appear to have been molded from some dark, plasticized material by Prada. Then there are the menus, which fold out, like Christmas cards, to reveal fusion Italian confections: ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms and leeks (delicious), and grilled quail served with polenta and fig jam (not bad).
Executive chef Frank Whittaker, formerly of Tra Vigne, in Napa Valley, seems to do his best work with pastas like veal ragù (over fettuccini) and a fresh, chunky version of lobster bolognese. The entrées, on the other hand, are mostly standard American dishes, dressed up with mild Italianate flourishes. The duck and chicken I sampled were both flavored with balsamic vinegar, and both were overdone. My grilled New York strip was decent as steaks go, although I could have done without the smearing of crushed pine nuts. Among seafood entrées, I liked the grilled branzino best, although arctic char fans may enjoy Whittaker’s somewhat eccentric version, which is molded into a not-very-tight tournedo and flecked with fried cubes of prosciutto. Among the desserts, you’ll find versions of panna cotta (glazed with oranges) and bomboloni with green apples. Most comforting of all, though, is the chocolate cake. It comes with vanilla ice cream and the obligatory puddinglike molten interior, a feature as unique to New York cuisine, these days, as the bagel hole.
Marseille 630 Ninth Avenue, at 44th Street; 212-333-2323. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, till 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, till 10 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $12; entrées, $16 to $24. A.E., M.C., V.
Moda 135 West 52nd Street; 212-887-9880. Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, till 10 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $16; entrées, $19 to $29. All major credit cards.