March Gets a Makeover and the Familiar Becomes Strange

When I heard that March was undergoing a $2 million renovation, I wondered what to expect. Was this small, conservative townhouse restaurant on the Upper East Side about to bring itself snappily up-to-date with the latest trends? Out with the Persian carpets, the Art Deco banquettes and Chinese needlepoint, in with the poured-concrete floors, the wiry overhead lights and waiters with shaved heads! The notion wasn’t so far-fetched, in fact. Wayne Nish, March’s chef and co-owner, used to work for Barry Wine at the Quilted Giraffe. Mr. Wine’s customers never got over the shock when his restaurant moved into the Sony building and ditched its clubby wood paneling in favor of high-tech chrome and stainless steel.

But Mr. Nish knows his audience. If March’s customers have a favorite restaurant designer, Philippe Starck is certainly not him; the new decor is as safe and neutral as its patrons’ clothes. It feels like a country-house hotel. Instead of a bar at the entrance, there is a small lobby set with two armchairs (covered with fabric designed by Walter Gropius) and a reception desk decorated with a large spray of flowers. An expensive white orchid arches over its clay pot on the windowsill, and New Age music discreetly fills the air with suggestions of aromatherapy and massage.

Architect John Kinnear (for whom Wayne Nish once worked before he became a chef) has added a three-story structure to the back of the brownstone, doubling the square footage and increasing the number of seats from 50 to 85. Downstairs, where the garden used to be, the dining room is somewhat claustrophobic, like the hold of a ship, with high windows above eye level. There is another dining room on the main floor, and up some steps on the mezzanine is a small, intimate room looking onto an outdoor terrace. Across the terrace we could see the windows of Guastavino’s, Terence Conran’s mega-restaurant under the Queensboro Bridge. March’s lighting is soft and the rooms seem startlingly hushed compared with the din in the last dozen restaurants I’ve been to recently (especially Guastavino’s), and aside from the lobby, it’s mercifully free of background music. Perhaps it was the lawyer at the table next to us on the mezzanine sporting a gray brush cut, a Kelly green polka-dot tie and a button of Hillary Clinton’s face crossed out, but March feels less like a New York restaurant than a fancy politicians’ haunt in Washington. And perhaps it was the bottle of Lynch-Bages he was drinking, not to mention the summer truffles, that gave the lawyer his breezy self-confidence as he talked non-stop throughout the meal.

Mr. Nish made a radical change at March four years ago when he did away with the restaurant’s three-course menu. Dinner here no longer progresses in a clean line from soup to nuts. Customers put together their own meal from a choice of four to seven small dishes that they mix and match. “Cooking schools teach kids to put a protein, starch and vegetable on every plate,” said Mr. Nish. “To make it interesting, they add more garnishes, an inedible herb, something fried sticking out of the top and two sauces. I wanted to simplify. But simplicity in large portions is boring. So instead of putting my ideas all on one plate, I decided to spread them across the entire menu.”

Dishes are listed sequentially on the menu, beginning with lighter things, such as sashimi or salad, and ending up with heavier dishes such as squab or lamb. Co-owner Joseph Scalice, who put together the wine list, will pair the appropriate wines for each course if you like. He comes up with some terrific choices, including a remarkable grape-like sake (but you’d have to have the stomach of an ox to withstand the combined effect of the champagne, red and white wines, sake and sherry he came up with during the course of one dinner). His quirky, intriguing list has a surprising number of interesting cheap wines, with very good deals starting at $18.

Mr. Nish’s food is strongly influenced by Japanese cooking, both in its presentation and its ingredients. Hence the sake served with the almost translucent slivers of lobster carpaccio, which were topped with three tiny smidgens of roe: osetra caviar, mentaiko (cod roe) and uni. Sake was also a perfect match for chanterelles that arrived on what looked like a red-and-white flagstone made from squares of peeled tomato and blanched onion. It took a while to figure out what they were, for this is not food you wolf down; it’s food you have to think about–not the least because things aren’t their usual shape (making the familiar strange and all that), so you have to focus to figure out what you’re eating. “It’s more intellectual than sensual,” complained a friend one night as he downed a potato latke the size of a pill and a roasted pear tomato as big as the nail on my little finger (these were sent out from the kitchen as what is gruesomely known in the business as amuse – gueules ). “The food is about deprivation,” he said, adding that what he really wanted was a hanger steak and fries.

But there was nothing depriving about the thick chunk of yellowtail with cubes of cassava, seasoned with lemon and chive oil, or the crunchy deep-fried gulf shrimp with lobster spinach packets (it took a while to figure out what they were, too). The fettuccine with three minuscule but powerfully briny clams topped with crème fraîche and spicy cod roe was wonderful, as was the lobster served in a creamy Beaumes de Venise sauce that was from another era. Fresh pea soup seasoned with verjus arrived floating with frogs’ legs that made them look like tiny divers excavating a green pond. The soup was excellent, but the frogs’ legs had very little taste. The “milk-fed poularde” (how do you milk-feed a chicken? I’d rather not know) consisted of tender, moist white-pink pieces of boneless meat served with shallots that had been cooked in a vinegary pear cider, giving them a tartness that provided the perfect foil. I liked this dish better than the duck, which didn’t have much flavor, but the lamb, in sweet shallot and walnut crust with parsley Parmesan risotto, was exceptional.

The atmosphere at March is a bit stiff, but by the time we were into our summer truffles (served with two kinds of Scottish venison: red and roe), the lawyer was still galvanizing his companions with anecdotes about the New Jersey Turnpike and a young man at another table broke into song with snippets of Italian opera. I half-expected the waiter to come up and tell us all to swap places for dessert. And what dessert! There wasn’t a loser among Stacie Pierce’s selection, beginning with a palate cleanser of fruits in a delicate jelly made with Japanese apple pectin and Chinese wine. We were offered a sampler of six mini-desserts that included a tiny baked Alaska, a single apricot tarte Tatin, raspberry panna cotta Napoleon with thin layers of puffy pastry and a warm chocolate mousse cake. They were small, but we finished all six. And we didn’t feel the least bit deprived.

March

* * *

405 East 58th Street

754-6272

Dress: Business

Noise level: Hushed

Wine list: Quirky, interesting boutique wines, well priced

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Four- to seven-course menus $72 to $126, with wines $112 to $196

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., Sunday 6:00 to 10:30 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star Poor