“Tonight’s special is duck, roasted in a 12-inch non-stick pan by line cook Raoul, with bok choy and a finish of yellow carrots, shiitakes and red and white currants by sous chef Christine.”
I’m exaggerating–a bit. Our waiter at Ilo didn’t tell us the size of the pan or the names of the cooks. But it is one of those restaurants where they feel compelled to list every ingredient and its place of origin, where the food comes under silver domes and where the sommelier “charges” (i.e., rinses out) your wineglasses with some of your very expensive wine to remove any impurities before you drink from them. In addition to the wine sommelier, there’s a cheese sommelier and even an olive-oil sommelier, who also presents the bottle before pouring a plateful for you to dip your bread in. If you order soup, he reappears with a glass beaker of oil that looks like something out of a science lab and disgorges a few droplets into the soup from a nozzle with a bulb at the end. “It’s called an ‘affetura,’” he says about the contraption, which you half-expect to spontaneously combust. Sprite also comes in a little glass jug, like wine ordered by the carafe. “Completely pointless,” said the teenager drinking it. “But it makes you feel like a champ.”
Indeed, Ilo–whose chef and owner, Rick Laakkonen, is originally from Finland and previously worked at the River Café–does make you feel like a champ. The name means “a joyful state of being” in Finnish (one word for our five, which must surely signify something) and the eager, friendly staff does everything it can to induce “ilo” in the customers. And while you may smile at some of their antics, you also have to admire them: They know their stuff and they’re not the least bit pompous. And the roast duck, like satin under its crispy skin and seasoned with Szechuan pepper and fleur de sel, was one of the best I’ve had anywhere.
Ilo’s dining room is a few steps up from the lounge of a new boutique hotel, the Bryant Park, in the old American Radiator building, a black and gold neo-Gothic edifice on West 40th Street near the New York Public Library. The lounge and basement bar are a hot scene, packed with models and their dates. The dining room is more restrained, done up in shades of gray and brown with comfortable booths (except that the tables are too narrow, so people on opposite sides can’t rest their elbows on it at the same time). The walls are paneled in taupe silk, and the ceiling is hung with wagon wheel-shaped light fixtures that Errol Flynn could have had a good swing from. The room is low-lit and quiet, though the bar scene below occasionally makes its presence felt. You can’t help noticing the irony of the note on the menu asking customers not to use their cell phones–given that the owner hails from Nokia country, where cell phones are used by 90 percent of the population.
Mr. Laakkonen’s innovative, international food is clever and subtle, beginning with the Asian-inspired hamachi, a small filet of the raw fish reclining on a julienne of cucumber with strands of seaweed, a gift from the chef that is brought to the table when you sit down. The same delicacy and restraint applies to the Tidal Pool, a bowl of briny, clear bonito broth floating with Olympia oysters, percebes (a Spanish goose-necked barnacle), sea urchin, wakame and mushrooms (silver ears and wood ears). It looks like one of those Japanese paper-flower arrangements that open up when you put them in water. The broth is strangely wonderful, smoky with a faint underlying hint of anisette.
Mr. Laakkonen likes to serve fish with a crispy skin, contrasting with the soft, moist flesh underneath. A gold-brown fillet of mackerel comes on top of waxy, sliced fingerling potatoes with slivered red onions and parsley. It is garnished with an especially prized whole fingerling in its skin, which looked like a head of fresh ginger. (I liked it better than the crisp black sea bass, which was rather dry).
Grilled jumbo quail (an oxymoron) is perched on a bed of white hominy and, to emphasize the Southwestern slant, comes with a quivering cheese pudding and a garnish of minced peppers, chilis, lime and coriander. House-smoked salmon is a rich orange-red, as strong in flavor as it promises, and comes on a white-corn crepe with crème fraîche perked up by roasted peppers. The smoker is also put to good use with the foie gras, smoked over fruitwood and twigs of kuchika tea and accompanied by meaty, dark slices of house-cured magret and a sweet compote of prunes and kumquats infused with kuchika.
Mr. Laakkonen, who is a master at sauces, likes to play with less commonly eaten parts of the animals (he has an all-beef tasting menu that includes tripe, oxtail and marrow bone), and he also gives a twist to familiar dishes, such as adding tamarind-essence flavoring to a charred filet of pork served with roast endive, potato and bacon. Pan-roasted guinea hen is juicy and tender, and garnished with kohlrabi sculpted so it looks like a fat mushroom out of a children’s book. Pan-roasted rabbit takes you to the south of France, with a cannelloni stuffed with dandelion and sheep’s-milk risotto, and slivers of Niçoise olives, oregano and lemon that draw the dish together. Thin slices of sautéed yellow-fin tuna are piled over fennel and glazed cucumber, sprinkled with olive oil and Aceto Manadori vinegar. Sturgeon, a fish I’m often disappointed by, is perfect–a snowy fillet matched with black vinegar eggplant, oven-dried tomato, pencil-thin asparagus and a rouille sauce.
Before you get a look at the dessert menu, the cheese sommelier arrives with a tray of bulging, oozing varieties and, using a knife as a pointer, lovingly works his way around it. “That orange cheese that looks like cantaloupe is aged mimolette. We also have a young Selles-sur-Cher rolled in ash, which changes the texture under the skin so it’s soft and supple, not chalky … ; St. Maure aged on a string of hay; a Stinking Bishop from Britain, aged in birchwood that gives it a subtle bitterness. This is Morbier, made with morning and evening milk divided by a layer of ash …. “
Now who is going to say, “No, thanks–we’ll just have coffee”?
So we share a selection of wonderful cheeses, positioned on the plate in order of strength and accompanied by what look like slices of salami but turn out to be figs, walnuts and honey. After cheese, pastry chef Patrick Coston’s citrus platter goes down well: eight different desserts, that include a blood-orange granité, warm orange cake, panna cotta and vanilla lime parfait. The banana and milk-chocolate box is also phenomenal: a square of chocolate cake filled with banana mousse and topped with malted milk glacé and banana sorbet.
The joyful state of being is eclipsed somewhat by the arrival of the bill. Ilo is very expensive–priced, it would seem for the Japanese market. Cocktails costs $14, bottled water $9, and out of nine main courses, only four are under 30 bucks. Count on $100 a head and up. But Rick Laakkonen’s great food has certainly brightened this once-dreary midtown block overlooking bryant Park–even as much as the two models who swept through the front door as we left, one of whom was wearing nothing but a tiny pink bathrobe.
* * *
40 West 40th Street (Bryant Park Hotel)
Noise level: Low
Wine list: First-rate global list, but expensive
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses, lunch, $15 to $28; three-course menu, $38; dinner, $24 to $38; all-beef tasting menu, $90; chef’s tasting menu, $110
Breakfast: Monday to Friday, 6:30 to 10 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 to 10 a.m.
Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. To 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor