“We have a special pizza tonight,” said our waitress.
The two 11-year-olds at the table brightened.
“Foie gras with mashed potato and truffled pecorino cheese.”
Their faces fell. For a moment, I thought she was joking.
“Could I have the smoked salmon pizza?” asked one of the boys, who had been flipping through the menu, which is in a ringed binder divided into sections by symbols–knives crossed with forks, martini glasses, wine bottles.
“I’m afraid we only serve that at the bar.”
She went off to see if an exception could be made, and before long we were all tucking into pizza, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, according to whether yours was the one with smoked salmon, which was quite good, or the foie gras and cheese, which was horrible.
Pop is surely one of the strangest new restaurants to come along. It’s in a sort of no man’s land, in an anonymous gray building on a gray anonymous block on Fourth Avenue just below 14th Street. You enter through big glass doors and when you stop at the desk, it’s like checking into an airport.
“Party complete, over and out,” mutters a young man into his collar where the small black periscope of his walkie-talkie is sticking up. A hostess, also wired, appears as if by magic and leads you past the long bar into the dining room. It’s a large, pleasant, comfortable room, designed by architect Ali Tayar, with a minimalist décor straight out of the 60’s. A dropped ceiling in cherry-red aluminum fashioned in a tic-tac-toe pattern conceals the old-fashioned molding on the columns above and reflects the light like water. Sleek cherry-wood banquettes rim the dining room with oval slivers about six inches long cut into the top, through which glow rainbow colors of light: red, blue, yellow and white. All the lighting is low and the tables, placed far apart, are set with teardrop candles.
Pop is owned by Roy Liebenthal, proprietor of Cafe Tabac and the Lemon, and late in the evening it attracts a young, hip crowd and has a lively bar scene. Early one evening, a group of serious wine drinkers sat at the next table surrounded by wineglasses. The waiter brought over a bottle of red wine, which he held aloft from the bottom, his thumb underneath.
The sight drew a disapproving look from my son. “Being a wine taster is a sure way to shorten your life span,” he said. He pulled out a pencil and did a calculation. “If you drank six glasses a night, you’d drink 2,190 glasses a year.”
I decided not to figure out how many glasses a year a restaurant critic consumes, and turned my attention instead to Pop’s wine list, which is interesting and creative, with good choices from lesser-known vineyards at reasonable prices and a fine selection of wines by the glass. The bartender also knows how to make a good caipirinha and the staff is well trained on the wines.
As for the food, when it is on target, it can be wonderful. Some dishes, though (see foie gras pizza, above), are forced, reflecting a desire to be innovative. (Why would you ever put truffled pecorino cheese on top of foie gras?) The chef, 30-year-old Brian Young, trained in Paris and has worked with the late Gilbert LeCoze at Le Bernardin and with Barry Wine at the Quilted Giraffe. You can see his talent at work in a dish like his tartare of shaved geoduck clam (which the children took great delight in learning is pronounced gooey-duck). It consisted of slivers of briny, raw clam mixed with fresh ginger and hot pepper oil and topped with crunchy lotus root. The flavors all came through clearly, and the contrast of textures was perfect. Another night, I liked the special tuna tartare and the crispy but juicy soft-shell crabs with a delicate noodle salad.
I was less impressed with the pan-fried portobello and sweetbread dumplings with fried spinach leaves and a reduction of balsamic vinegar. The filling was bland and the dumplings, made with won-ton wrappers, were chewy.
The food here is expensive, with first courses between $13 and $15 and main courses around $25 to $32. Salmon under a pepper crust was medium rare and very fresh, sparked with a fine red wine sauce but the “garlic butter-tossed” fries were soggy. A snowy filet of Chilean sea bass was served with clear gazpacho that gave it a pristine, fresh tone. But tuna rolls, fried in tempura batter and sliced in rare chunks, with hot and sour soy sauce and toasted rice, were surprisingly tasteless.
In contrast, the small boy who had ordered the duck pronounced it “delightful,” and he was right. It had a crisp skin, juicy flesh and came with a spring roll filled with duck confit that wasn’t greasy but smooth and velvety; the sauce of tart sour cherries brought the whole dish together.
Loin of pork stuffed with herbs was a little dry, but it was redeemed by terrific thick-cut Vidalia onion rings fried in a light tempura batter. My favorite dish was the beef sirloin, cut in a loaf shape and perfectly cooked, rare but charred on the outside. It came with an odd muffinlike potato cake, which had been mixed with blue cheese and meat from short ribs. I didn’t like the consistency or the musty taste the cheese gave it. Perhaps it needed more cheese. But I’d have much rather had plain old mashed potatoes or fries with this splendid piece of sirloin.
Desserts tended to be overwrought and not exactly a bargain, starting at $9. A hysterical “caramel tasting plate” includes jasmine pot de crème, vanilla panna cotta with fig and cherry compote, apricot caramel baked Alaska and caramel chocolate opera torte with gianduja gelato. It wasn’t very good, nor was the lemon yogurt charlotte with its lackluster tuille and blueberry compote. Warm bittersweet chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream seems to be on every menu in town these days. But we lapped it up; it was dark, chocolatey and satisfying.
All in all, Pop has potential and there are plenty of good dishes to choose from. Perhaps foie gras pizza with pecorino cheese will be the new fashion food of the moment. But next time I come here, I’ll choose the sirloin. And maybe a side order of those onion rings.
127 Fourth Avenue, between 12th and 13th streets
Dress: Casual hip
Noise level: Gets quite loud
Wine list: Creative
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Dinner main courses $16 to $32
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to midnight
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor