A Star Is (Finally) Born on the Upper West Side

Perched on a stool at Ouest, a new restaurant in the heart of Zabar’s country, a bespectacled young Japanese businessman was absorbed in a blockbuster novel. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he turned the pages between mouthfuls of chocolate cake. But then he put down his fork for a second. “Do you have a sweet wine?” he asked the bartender.

“Bonny Doon? Vin de glacière? A Muscat? Let me show you the list …. “

“No vin santo?” The young man handed back the list. “I’ll have a glass of port–when I’ve finished my dessert, of course.” He snapped off a piece of peanut brittle, dug it into the banana ice cream that accompanied the small dome of dark chocolate cake, and returned to his book.

It was only 8 o’clock, and I wasn’t quite ready for port. Instead, I ordered a cosmopolitan while I waited for my husband and son to arrive. The bartender busied himself with the cocktail shaker and emptied the contents into a bucket-size martini glass. He set it down, a pink and glowing concoction, and watched as I took a sip.

“Wow!” I said. “What’s in it?”

He beamed. “Fresh lemon and lime juices. And I use Cointreau instead of triple sec. Not too sweet, right?”

Even the cosmopolitans at Ouest are terrific. And when my son arrived, his eyes lit up at the chocolate cake the man was eating at the bar.

Ouest is the latest venture of chef Tom Valenti, who made his name downtown at Alison on Dominick and Cascabel before going to Butterfield 81 on the Upper East Side. His new venture, opened three months ago with partner Godfrey Polistina (of Carmine’s and Virgil’s), has caused great excitement in a neighborhood where the complaint for years has been the shortage of sophisticated restaurants. Designer Peter Niemitz has combined a former dry cleaner’s and a coffee shop to create a bustling brasserie that’s been packed since it opened.

When you first walk in, you have no inkling of the size of the place. The bar is at the entrance–a small, clubby room decorated with a large vase of white flowers–leading to a corridor lined with glass-fronted wooden wine cabinets, dark red leather booths and lanterns. You think that’s it, until you turn the corner into a vast, noisy dining room done up in dark wood. From the 24-foot ceiling hang crimson and orange silk lampshades, dangling over enormous red leather booths that dot the room like islands. An open kitchen, giant mirrors and two mezzanines complete the décor of the room, which looks onto a tree-lined street that gives the illusion of a park or garden. You could be in a Parisian brasserie–except, that is, for the drably dressed people.

I’m not suggesting that Ouest’s customers should look like those at Mercer Kitchen or Thom, or even Butterfield 81, but these denizens of the Upper West Side look like they’re wearing the same clothes they were when they made a last-minute decision to go out for dinner instead of staying home. “Honey,” says he or she, unpacking the Fairway bag, “I don’t feel like cooking tonight. Let’s just stick this in the fridge and go to Ouest.”

It’s not the strollers, it’s the flip-flops and shorts, the rumpled T-shirts and leather money belts that jar the eye. Doesn’t Mr. Valenti’s cooking deserve a little more respect?

His food is certainly accessible, beginning with the hot, thin, crisp baguettes that arrive in a metal container, with chickpea purée on the side instead of butter. There are friendly daily specials, including Mr. Valenti’s signature braised lamb shank, lamb chops, meat loaf and roast chicken for two, all served on oversized white plates. I would think it’s worth changing into long pants for his amazing sweet-pea soup, an emerald pool with a delicate Parmesan-scented custard floating in the center, dotted with morels. The oyster pan roast is stellar, made with silken oysters in a sherry-and-cream broth laced with sliced Yukon Gold potatoes and trumpet mushrooms.

Since we’re on Zabar’s turf, it should come as no surprise that the smoked sturgeon is extraordinary, served with bacon, frisée and a poached egg that oozes into the salad when you cut it. Mr. Valenti also serves an egg with the house-smoked duck breast, which is arranged on the plate like carpaccio and crisscrossed with a mustard dressing; the egg is rolled in bread crumbs, deep-fried and placed on bitter greens. A luscious salmon gravlax is coated with mustard oil, topped with beads of salmon caviar and arranged on a chickpea pancake that gives it a nice crunch.

There are only two pastas on the menu, both ravioli. One, the agnolotti, is made with a curious (and successful) combination of foie gras, leeks, chickpeas and basil. The other ravioli are densely filled with goat cheese and topped with a thin tomato sauce and diced pancetta, which overwhelms the delicacy of the pasta.

But that’s just a quibble. The sea scallops with chervil on a bed of sweet corn are my idea of the perfect summer dish. Roast pork, pink and juicy, is wrapped in bacon, the saltiness softened by the white-bean purée. Tomato adds an acidic note to the risotto served with rare slices of roast squab, cutting the richness of the meat. I don’t think I’ve ever had better rabbit: moist chunks so tender you can cut them with a fork, on a purée of root vegetables that tastes mostly of parsnip. The lightly smoked roast salmon with fingerling potatoes and caviar remoulade is pleasant but bland. But the filet mignon, normally a poor excuse for steak, is well seasoned in a peppercorn-mushroom crust and served on a hearty bed of kale with golden pommes soufflés.

Desserts by pastry chef Michael Moorhouse (formerly of Tabla and Alison on Dominick) are wonderful. They include a creamy raspberry chibouste with a toasted sugar topping, a sensational plum crisp, and a quivery little panna cotta topped with yellow pearls of passion fruit. A compote of figs accompanies the tangy Shropshire cheese; raspberry financier comes with a citrus sauce and a scoop of tart lemon ice cream. My son opted for the chocolate cake he’d seen the man devouring at the bar. He was literally bouncing with pleasure as he ate it. “The chef must have read my mind,” he said when I asked him if he liked it. And indeed, judging by the reception Tom Valenti’s getting on the Upper West Side, a great many people feel he’s read theirs, too.

OUEST

* *

2315 Broadway (at 84th Street)

580-8700

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Quite high

Wine list: Interesting, international, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Dinner, main courses, $16 to $27

Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday (starting this month), 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor