If Not for the Food, I’d Write Off Alaia

It’s annoying when you arrive for a reservation at a restaurant and find yourself taken away from the cheerful hub and glamour of the main dining room, down to the basement. This happened to me the first time I went to Alaia, which is owned by actors Stephen and William Baldwin.

When I called to book a table, I was told I was very lucky because they had just received a cancellation. The place was hot! But any sense of triumph at having made it past the velvet rope vanished with each step I took down to a small, stark room where the ceilings were low and the acoustics terrible. A boisterous party was under way along the banquette, which was filled with gorgeous creatures in henna tattoos and spaghetti strap dresses, all of whom were shouting. I would never have come back had it not been for the food. Maybe the basement is where people want to be. But I don’t think the notion of split-level dining works in a place like this. People come here to see other people, and the bar–which not only has two-story ceilings, sofas and palm trees but people to boot–is upstairs.

As I discovered on my subsequent visit, the main-floor dining room offers an altogether different experience and to my mind a much more pleasant one than the rumpus room below. The restaurant wasn’t particularly crowded on this occasion, although there were quite a few people hanging out at the bar where you can get caperberry martinis. Further back is the dining room proper, which is elegant and softly lit, decorated with a huge round mirror and impressive paintings in a vaguely Cubist style that our waitresses told us were by a 13-year-old prodigy, Alexandra Niechita. The tables have polished copper tops and are set with white cloths, votive candles and small vases of flowers; the name “Alaia” (after Stephen Baldwin’s 7-year-old daughter) is beamed discreetly on a far wall. Even though the space is large, it seems intimate.

Alaia’s premises have something of a jinxed past. For a while, they were another very trendy restaurant, the Markham, and then Mirezi, which was decorated with miniature TV sets showing Japanese cartoons, one of which still lurks in the wall downstairs. The entrance still has Mirezi’s beautiful floor made of black pebbles.

The Baldwin brothers clearly want to create a restaurant that’s not just about a trendy bar scene but focuses on the cooking, too. I liked chef Matthew Scully’s Mediterranean-inspired cuisine when he was at Scully on Spring. He has brought some of his dishes to Alaia, along with his imaginative pizzas that include toppings of lamb sausage and grilled vegetables or bresaola, fontina cheese and plum tomatoes.

When you sit down, you are brought a basket of crusty country bread served with romesco sauce, made with peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, toasted almonds and hazelnuts, and a bowl of juicy, fat olives. If you ask for fizzy mineral water, it appears in a blue seltzer bottle with a silver label–and a nozzle for spritzing that immediately triggers childhood memories, particularly for those who were raised in New York City. Of course, in those days seltzer went for six bucks a case, not for a bottle.

We were off to a good start with tender pieces of char-grilled octopus served on frisée lettuce with gigante beans (those large, creamy Italian white beans), sun-dried tomatoes in a vinaigrette made with charmoula, a Moroccan sauce made with cilantro and spices. The crab cakes are also given a Moroccan accent in their spicing, and were served with shaved fennel and spiced orange aïoli. I found them strangely fishy-tasting.

But I loved the braised duck and walnut rolls, served with a rich, sweet and spicy apricot dipping sauce. The now ubiquitous tuna tartare, a dish I never tire of when it’s done right, was also good, cut in chunks and served with a cucumber salad and sesame flatbread, giving it a nice contrast of texture. Carpaccio of beef was excellent, with crisp baby artichokes, arugula and a white truffle vinaigrette–how can you go wrong with this combination of ingredients?

There was a satisfying homespun quality to Mr. Scully’s roasted cod, a snowy chunk garnished with green olives and capers and served with mashed potatoes. The grilled chicken was juicy and came with hot, crisp straw potatoes. Baked Chilean sea bass with preserved lemons was a better dish than the wild striped bass. The latter was disappointingly mushy, as if the person cooking it had gone off to answer the telephone and come back one minute too late.

Tuna in a lemon crust with glazed eggplant, coconut basmati rice and lobster curry sauce was a signature at Scully on Spring, where I found its Caribbean flavors a bit muddling. This time, I liked it better; the combination seemed more subtle. Slow-roasted duck was very tender and not at all fatty, with spinach and a blood orange sauce. The ravioli with smoked salmon, ricotta and morels was also delicious, as was a side dish of sautéed fiddlehead ferns.

Desserts were pleasant without being particularly memorable. I liked the chocolate cake with vanilla latte sauce, although the presentation was a little odd; it looked at first glance as though it were covered with stubbed-out cigarettes, but it was just decoration. I wasn’t wild about the rather sweet banana “bombe” with white coffee mousse and hazelnut praline. The best choice was the creamy strawberry mascarpone tart.

Alaia may have pizza on the menu for around 10 bucks, but with main courses in the $19-to-$25 range, the food here is not exactly a steal. Whether next month it will have turned into a Turkish restaurant or a place for ribs is hard to tell. But I hope Alaia makes it, for it’s a great looking place and I like the food, too.

Alaia

* 1/2

59 Fifth Avenue, between 12th and 13th streets

242-9710

Dress: Henna tattoos, spaghetti strap dresses, black shirts

Noise level: Fine upstairs, extremely noisy downstairs

Wine list: Reasonable

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Dinner main courses $19 to $25

Dinner: Daily 5 P.M. to midnight

Late-night menu: Thursday to Saturday midnight to 2 A.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor