food 05.19.03


What were we thinking in the 80s? In that first wave of restaurant madness, big, galumphing eateries would materialize, become overnight sensations, then transmogrify into attitude-laden mockeries that sent forth gussied-up, amateur-night food. The Cafe Seiyokans of the world have mercifully departed, forgotten and unmourned, while the few real deals from that time (Gotham Bar & Grill), still thrive.

Our first impression of Amuse, 108 W. 18th [6th/7th] 212.929.9755, the new restaurant where The Tonic used to be, was of the 80s. It's a fairly large space with a number of seating areas, none of which has much personality. And yet Amuse can serve as an object lesson in how far both restaurateurs and diners have come in two decades. Only open a short time, it is producing accomplished, delicious and occasionally surprising food. No whiff of attitude anywhere.

The menu, organized by price of dishes ($5, $10, $15 and $20), has a slight Mediterranean tilt. So you will do well with, for instance, the spring asparagus risotto with sweet pea leaves and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Even if it might lose a point or so on technique, it comes packing with bursts of flavor that manage to be rich and understated at the same time. Cumin is an unexpected flavor in the pulled pork tortilla but it turns out to be a natural ally. Lacquered squab scores, though the sweetness of the accompanying couscous could be toned down. One night, the roasted cod preparation was done with halibut; the house-cured pancetta with which it is wrapped dominates the proceedings (and would do so even more handily with cod, no doubt), but it's hard to argue when the sum total is so appealing. For dessert, don't miss the grapefruit granita, which becomes a rousing finale when mixed with the rosemary sabayon.

We're puzzled by one thing, though. For a place that calls itself Amuse, why not offer an amuse-gueule? There are ham and gruyere gougères on the menu that would be perfect. It would also help with one other aspect of the experience that was a little more 80s than we would have liked. So far, the restaurant hasn't got a distinct personality in terms of staff, design, vibe. But a few more touches, a few small adjustments, and this one's a keeper.
Next Tuesday, May 27th, Chanterelle, 2 Harrison [Hudson] 212.966.6960, hosts their 5th annual sake dinner. Nine courses plus sakes, is $275.

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