It’s just so weird. No, not the election; that’s simply tormenting. Less frightening but more confounding is that right now, Aix is hotter than Dennis Quaid’s stolen kiss in Far From Heaven. Its three carnelian-red-and-cornmeal-yellow-accented floors are regularly filled with spirited patrons practically presold on dinners they’ve yet to eat. Yet, less than two years ago, the dining room of Didier Virot’s inaugural venture in the Dylan Hotel was often nearly as barren as Julianne Moore’s heavenly bed. Granted, Virot’s starkly appointed space was icier than a Brecht medley by Karen Akers, and service struck such a level of punctiliousness that one was tempted to rub the flatware against one’s sleeve so waiters wouldn’t sneer at the finger marks. Still, the former executive chef of JoJo was no less talented then than he is now.
So does success hinge on choosing a cozier color scheme? Having investors with access to a juicier Rolodex? Could it be Virot’s nifty cocktail menu? The overflow from nearby Ouest? As beneficial as these factors may be, it’s doubtful that any one of them provides Aix’s magic key. And no recommendation, not even a socko review, can necessarily make you show up more than once. Engaging as it is, Aix’s neo-brownstone interior is most laudable for its ingenious solutions to this tricky multitiered chamber, more dramatic in its height than its width or length. And Tom Valenti’s bighearted bistro food at Ouest is as unlike Virot’s precise, contrapuntal cooking as Will’s friend Jack is to any gay man I’d ever loan car fare to.
Still, it’s not as if moving on up to the West Side has prompted any great desire in Virot to play to the locals. Had that been his goal, it’s doubtful he would have risked the powerful tang of sardine tartare in a dense vegetable pistou. Only once in three bowlfuls was its addition overwhelming. Otherwise, like the flavors in all of Virot’s appetizers, it fractured expectations in delightful ways. Shards of crabmeat in a cannelloni studded with celery root and clams tasted sweeter because of a broth of red chili and thyme. Silken ribbons of tuna laced through layers of cucumber in sheep’s-milk yogurt with dashes of horseradish and coriander. Tomato tarts were startling with perfume of green basil and Parmesan. Foie gras rolled in pistachios was gloriously elevated instead of outdone by an exacting balance of potato-quince crumble against peach coulis. An even more precarious triumph was the airy gnocchi vaporizing amid a luscious black-truffle emulsion.
After appetizers, Virot’s kitchen occasionally stumbles over its delicate feats of equilibrium. Pastas were way off; penne in plum-tomato sauce is capsized by more smoked salmon than a Zabar’s regular could mash on a bagel; basmati in a refreshing lemon emulsion is smothered by enough prosciutto to accompany a whole honeydew; and potato-and-spinach cannelloni in Parmesan cream is a disturbing excess of softness for a clientele still capable of chewing.
But then there’s goat-cheese pasta in red sabayon that’s as gratifying as the lush braised lamb shank and lean slices of loin it accompanies. Dorade bristles with the fervor of radish and fennel. Roast sea bass is ably enhanced by a judiciously restrained olive sauce. Squab is so superb you want to gnaw at the roasted legs like someone out of Tom Jones. But venison is stultifyingly flat. A strikingly golden chicken rises way above the level of comfort food when baked with star anise and honey, yet a blushingly pink tenderloin of pork is bludgeoned by an uncharacteristically clumsy overdose of ginger in a caramel sauce.
It’s over dessert that one starts to wonder whether, in time, Aix might satisfy even more if Virot tried to dazzle less, since some of pastry chef Jehangir Mehta’s offerings exhibit the keenest overdose of artisanry. Apple-rosemary brioche is gorgeous, almond crème brûlée exceptionally smooth. But while an incredibly poised Provence salad – candied celery, melon, and green tomato with a mint sorbet – would be a consummate side dish at any summer picnic, it’s as self-consciously precious a way to close a meal as Mehta’s velvety licorice panna cotta. “It’s different. But it’s very weird,” said the redhead at the next table. “Too weird.” But then, so is success.
- 2398 Broadway, at 88th Street
- Dinner, Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
- Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $16; entrées, $24 to $29.
- All major credit cards.