If you were blindfolded and transported to just about any restaurant on lower Park Avenue, you would know where you were. The model is instantly recognizable: a packed bar full of thirtysomethings drinking weird cocktails and beer, a gorgeous but harried hostess at the door, a lounge decorated with potted palms and sofas, and in the kitchen, a chef wrestling with the latest ideas in fusion cuisine (as well as more than a passing interest in creating dishes that make people thirsty).
Aleutia is all of the above, and yet quite different. Yes, it has a packed bar–30 feet long, made of concrete. And there are sofas–upholstered in gray suede, no less. But it also has unusually good food. And on the evenings I was there, at least, it was quiet enough to have a conversation without feeling that you had sung the lead in Tannhauser by the end of the night.
The bi-level restaurant is airy and spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a sweeping orange panel that curves from behind the bar up to the mezzanine. Behind the lounge is a dining area, softly lit with candles and Japanese-style lamps whose shades are made with twisted pleats of white silk. On a slow, snowy Monday night, we were seated upstairs, where it’s quietest. Pistachio-green banquettes stretch along one wall, and at the far end are three glass cases with small, Noguchi-style sculptures inside that look like mini Martha Graham sets. Through the picture windows, which afford a breathtaking panorama of the CVS pharmacy across the street, we could see piles of snow on the sidewalk turning to slush. Our waitress appeared with demitasses of hot chocolate laced with bourbon, a present from the chef. Each cup was topped with tiny marshmallows the size of a baby’s fingernail.
“They’re homemade,” said the waitress.
“How do you ‘homemake’ a marshmallow?” wondered one of my companions, looking puzzled. “I thought they came only in a bag.” Just as baked beans come only in a can.
The hot chocolate was extraordinarily good, aromatic and rich. Obviously, the chef’s mother never told him not to eat a candy bar before dinner. But it certainly didn’t seem to put a dent in our appetites that evening. It must have been the cooking. From the first taste of the chef’s amuse (invariably pronounced “amusay”), which might be a tostado of mango and duck with barbecue sauce one night, pulled chicken with goat cheese and wild mushrooms on sweet-potato chips another, you know he means business.
Gavin Citron was briefly at Celadon, uptown, and Aja before that. His cooking is American with Asian accents, using bold flavors and some zany combinations, such as duck with banana grits and peanut sauce. (The idea, Mr. Citron said, came from Elvis Presley, who loved peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches.) The rare, crisp-skinned breast was paired with tender confit and served with stone-ground grits mashed with bananas that had been roasted in their skins, topped with a sauce of puréed roasted peanuts and smoked chipotles. Weird, certainly, but delicious.
Cod was wrapped in pancetta and slowly roasted until the bacon was crisp and the cod moist and flaky underneath. Mr. Citron laid it on a bed of runner beans studded with braised pork ribs flavored with mango barbecue sauce–a great winter dish. Chunks of grilled octopus were paired with delicate cod cheeks and served in an intensely flavored tomato broth seasoned somewhat baroquely with capers, lemon peel and black currants soaked in port. It was surprisingly subtle.
Mr. Citron is keen on truffle oil, a fact that was brought home one evening when I came with a friend who informed us, after tasting three of the first courses on the table–all of which contained the oil–that she was allergic to it. We were horrified. (More, I realized later, at the thought of her lifetime of deprivation than at the prospect of any imminent harm.) Looking at her face, which was quite flushed, I was reminded of my fifth birthday party, when the cook used the better part of a bottle of liqueur in the cake’s cream filling. Afterward, one of the little girls went up to my mother and asked, “Are my peeks chink?”
Mercifully, the effects of the truffle oil wore off more quickly than that of the birthday cake, and my companion was able to enjoy the rest of her dinner without incident.
Steamed dumplings were made with a semolina dough moistened with sake instead of water, stuffed with wild mushrooms and prosciutto, and simmered in a powerful mushroom broth made with truffle juice and shavings. There was a splash of truffle oil in the sushi tuna, which was lightly seasoned with sesame, mint and cilantro, and accompanied by addictive rice crackers. The aroma of truffles also wafted heartily from the mashed potatoes that came with the juicy roast poussin.
Ribbons of cured salmon were filled with salmon roe and tartare and sprinkled with olive oil and fines herbes. Ruby-red and golden beets were roasted, marinated in champagne to bring out the sweetness, shaved ainto “noodles” and tossed with a sweet-pepper vinaigrette topped with a goat-cheese gratin. Seared sea scallops came with corn and mushroom risotto that had tiny, sweet bay scallops folded into it. Slow-basted Alaskan salmon, cooked with its skin in a cast-iron skillet, was served on a bed of wild rice, wheat berries and toasted barley in a rich sauce made with lobster and a dash of port.
I’m not sure about the dessert listed on the menu as “only for the adventurous.” A rather dry pound cake laced with picholine olives was accompanied by a poached pear and black truffle ice cream. The cacophony of flavors was most peculiar. But the other desserts included a terrific lemon meringue pie with lemon sherbet and a confit of meyer lemons, and the ubiquitous (but done very well here) molten chocolate cake. The roasted pumpkin cake with praline was sensational.
When I first called Aleutia to book a table, the reservationist asked me if I had any special dietary requirements. “Just good food,” I said. The restaurant delivered.
220 Park Avenue South (at 18th Street)
Dress: Casual but chic
Noise level: Can be high
Wine list: Interesting, fairly priced international list
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Lunch three-course prix fixe $20, main courses $12 to $18;
Dinner main courses $25 to $32
Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Wednesday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor