Twee It Is Not

TremontPhoto: Danny Kim

Tremont, which opened early this summer among the posh townhouses and boutiques down on Bank Street, is one of those small, slightly self-conscious West Village restaurants that, on first inspection, look almost too polished and twee for their own good. The storefront façade is painted in a neat white trim, and the windows are covered in discreet wooden shades. The fifteen or so small café tables inside the snug, suspiciously spotless dining room are divided by partitions made of carefully painted, Hamptons-style white wainscoting. The cozy, ten-seat dining bar in the middle of the room is fitted with little hooks on which to hang your shopping bags, and the walls are hung (one of my jaded, fashion-minded guests observed) with the kind of summery, pleasantly inoffensive paintings and prints that you’d see in the tastefully redesigned vacation home of a midlevel banker.

So imagine my surprise when the first dish from the kitchen turned out to be a bountiful, rib-sticking bowl of eggy, house-rolled pappardelle noodles spooned with a dense, well-simmered ­ragout made with veal cheeks, garlic, and plenty of summer tomatoes. It was followed by roasted quail (balanced on a decorous pile of tabbouleh with pickled cherries), a helping of popping-fresh grilled baby squid that tasted like they had just been hauled from the chilly waters off Montauk (they had), and a bowl of soft hand-molded dumplings made, in the Roman style, from semolina and served in a restorative mushroom broth finished with fresh parsley and flakes of Parmesan. A burly chef of my acquaintance, an English­man who has come over to cook in the U.S. for the summer, took a bite of this deceptively sophisticated dish, then put down his spoon. “Those are bloody fine dumplings,” he said.

Tremont, it turns out, isn’t your typically twee West Village restaurant after all. The owners run a popular establishment out in Amagansett (which explains the Hamptons décor), and their chef, Tim Bando, has a fondness for old-fashioned, country-style largesse. My burly chef friend also had complimentary things to say about the quality of the “crispy boneless” chicken ($25, with summer beans tossed with bits of pan­cetta), and the smoky, fist-size heritage pork chop (which is plated with a pile of barbecue-sweet cipollini onions). There are thick, pleasingly fatty lamb chops on the menu, too, and a series of revolving daily seafood specials, like fresh Montauk swordfish (garnished with a delicious basil-infused aïoli), and that classic Italian-American seafood stew cioppino, which Bando serves with mounds of scallops, shrimp, and mussels all mingled together in a pitch-perfect saffron-laced broth.

Many of Tremont’s potential customers were still frantically sunning themselves out in the Hamptons on the evenings I dropped by, which may explain why the little room had a casual, pleasantly unhurried feel to it. The restaurant doesn’t have a full liquor license yet, but you can get a variety of bottled beers at the bar and a perfectly chilled glass of 2010 Roger and Didier Raimbault Sancerre, from the Loire Valley, to go with your helping of seafood stew. The perfunctory desserts I sampled included a sticky square of white-chocolate cake (now off the menu), and a strange version of panna cotta flavored, somewhat tragically, with basil. My chef friend thought his helping of peach semifreddo tasted more like ice cream than semifreddo (he was right). He recommends instead the country-style blueberry tart, followed by the excellent coffee, which is served at this satisfying little neighborhood joint in big, steaming (and yes, slightly twee) French press pots.

The great Spanish culinary revolution may have forever changed the way we look at food, but Spanish restaurants have always been a tough sell in this fickle town. Just ask the talented chef Luis Bollo, whose great Soho restaurant, Meigas, closed several years back despite generally rave reviews by critics (including me). Bollo plied his trade out in the provinces for a while (the Meigas in Norwalk, Connecticut, was a hit), but now he’s back to try his luck with a more conventional Spanish venture in Chelsea called Salinas. His menu this time around is devoid of tricky, El Bulli–style emulsions and foams. You can get a nice glass of sangria at the curiously pokey little bar, and a roster of familiar “regional” specialties (Ibérico ham, gazpacho made with heirloom tomatoes, a dank version of squid-ink-rich paella negra for two) in the restaurant’s garden room, out back.

Bollo’s time in the suburbs has taken some of the edge off his old style, but several of these classic dishes are worth the price of admission. I’m thinking of the crunchy, puffy crujiente mahonés (a kind of fresh-baked flatbread sprinkled with honey, thyme, and shavings of mahon cheese), the generously garlicky, head-on langostinos al ajillo, and the little segments of quail, which Bollo wraps in ribbons of apple-smoked bacon and drizzles with sherry. Best of all, though, is that ageless Iberian delicacy roast suckling pig, which the chef slow-cooks for half a day in a sherry reduction, then crisps to an almost candied sweetness. If you’re feeling rash, finish your meal with the excellent torrija caramelizada, a slab of country bread soaked like French toast in eggs and milk, then seized in a sturdy warm brûlée crust.

Address: 51 Bank St., nr. W. 4th St.; 212-488-1019
Hours: Brunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner daily 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $18; entrées, $25 to $42.
Ideal Meal: Pappardelle with veal cheeks or grilled squid, daily seafood special, blueberry tart.
Note: Tremont just commenced serving a proper weekend brunch this past weekend.
Scratchpad: Half a star for the polished neighborly vibe, and another half for the accomplished food.

Salinas (View Menu)
Address: 136 Ninth Ave., nr. 18th St.; 212-776-1990
Hours: Dinner Monday through Wednesday, and Sunday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday to midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $18; entrées, $21 to $38.
Ideal Meal: Crujiente mahonés, head-on shrimp, roast suckling pig, torrija caramelizada.
Note: Bollo’s great pork dish has to be ordered 30 minutes in advance, like a fine soufflé.
Scratchpad: Two stars for Bollo’s solid cooking, minus a star for the pokey, vaguely suburban surroundings.

Twee It Is Not