Who’s at Tonic? Cute Guys, Some Exceptional Dishes

Harvey’s Chelsea House was the prototype of a certain kind of New York restaurant: dark smoky bar dating back to the 1890′s, wood paneling, etched mirrors, tiled floors-and bad food. When the restaurant closed several years ago, I figured the owners would simply rip it apart and sell the fixtures and that if it ever reopened, it would be painted white. So it was a wonderful surprise to walk in on a recent night to find the place looking much as I remembered, only better. (It has been spruced up and is now a warm red.) It is also a scene. Young executives in pinstriped business suits, guys in white T-shirts and bikers’ jackets, lithe young women in jeans or black dresses were packed several deep at the bar, and they weren’t all just waiting for tables.The maître d’ led me away from this merry throng into the room next door, which, although full and lively, seemed quiet by comparison. It was like being sent to sit with the grown-ups. My friends were already at the table.

“A lot of cute guys in the tavern,” said one of them, who is single. She looked wistfully toward the door. “I feel I’ve been sent to eat in first class when the real fun’s down in steerage.”

But the dining room turned out to be fun, too, if of a more restrained kind. The room is on two levels with a skylight at the back and is painted a pretty peach color, with gorgeous flower arrangements and bowls of roses on the tables. The walls are decorated with impressionistic paintings and chandeliers with tungsten lamps that cast a soft, flattering glow over the room. Our waiter, who turned out to be extremely knowledgeable about the wines on the interesting list, suggested a glass of Albarino, a flowery dry Spanish wine. It was delicious, and soon my friend stopped looking around to see if any of the “cute guys” had decided to upgrade themselves.

The Tonic is owned by Scott Carney, Steve Tzolis and Nicola Kotsoni; the latter two own a diverse group of restaurants that includes Il Cantinori, Periyali, Bar Six and Chez Es Saada. The chef, Chris Gesualdi, was formerly at Montrachet and his food, although sometimes a little tentative, can be very good. Two separate menus are served, the one in the dining room being slightly more complex.

I began with a creamy velouté of diced bay scallops, leeks and fingerling potatoes with a lovely scallop dumpling, which was one of the best dishes on the menu. The applewood-smoked salmon was also excellent, served warm with bluepoint oysters and Osetra caviar, and a caper sauce that brought all the flavors together. Mr. Gesualdi’s warm eggplant terrine, layers of glistening eggplant slices and red peppers, with goat cheese, tomato coulis and olive vinaigrette, was exceptional.

The citrus-cured raw tuna, alas, was a letdown, cut into little rectangular slices and served with seaweed salad that failed to divert from the fact that the fish was flavorless (and even a bit rubbery). The crab meat salad with poached shrimp and green beans was a better choice, but the dressing on the salad was bland.

Main courses were uneven, too. One dish that was truly bizarre the night I tried it was the truffle-crusted salmon. The crust sat on the fish like a black toupee (and tasted a bit like a toupee to boot), and the fish had no flavor at all. John Dory with orzo, spinach and tomato fondue was better, certainly fresh but still dull.

When it came to more substantial dishes, however, Mr. Gesualdi came into his own. The wild mushroom risotto was excellent. Muscovy duck with five spices and bok choy was rare and meaty; had the rice not been undercooked, the dish would have been perfect. The rack of lamb was irreproachable, pink and tender, served with a mushroom crepe and spinach. But my all-round favorite was the cocotte of braised meats-beef cheek, goose, lamb, veal shank and vegetables-topped with a quivering little marrow custard. I could return to the Tonic for this alone.

Stephane Motir’s desserts are an interesting combination of American and French. I liked the plate of cheesecake with berries and vanilla compote, the fromage blanc raspberry tart and the delicate mascarpone Bavarian with sour cherries. The orange terrine was delicious, too, served in a jelly made with Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. And the chocolate “triptych” was simply wonderful, a warm chocolate brioche pudding, a velvety marquise and a white chocolate gelato. To go with (or after) dessert, there is a good selection of dessert wines and port.

When we left, the tavern was going full throttle and the bar was even more crowded. Either way, right now the Tonic has a buzz about it, whether you eat with the grown-ups or play in the saloon.

The Tonic Restaurant & Bar

* *

110 West 18th Street

929-9755

Dress: Quite chic

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Interesting list with reasonable prices, good dessert wines

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $25 to $29, three-couse tasting menus $40 to $75

Lunch: Daily noon to 2 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Thursday 5:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * *Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor