A Surreal Chelsea Hot Spot With Johnny Depp on the Menu

“No sneakers, shorts or jeans,” warned the reservationist when I booked a table for dinner at Man Ray. It’s not a dress code you’d expect to be observed by Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, John Malkovich or Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall, all of whom are partners in this new restaurant, owned by French record producer Thierry Klemeniuk. Man Ray is in a converted firehouse on a quiet residential street in Chelsea, with a bouncer at the door who checks your name–and your outfit–before he lets you in. (Bikini tops and bare midriffs are apparently O.K., while bare male calves are not.) The surrealist photographer, after whom this and Mr. Klemeniuk’s highly successful restaurant and lounge in Paris are named, would have had a field day here. The front desk is manned by two beautiful women who look as though they’ve stepped out of Star Trek , dressed in polyester cheongsams slit to the thigh–a blonde in black, her ebony-skinned companion in burgundy. If your table is not ready, the hostesses will direct you to the long bar where, under a statue of the Hindu god Shiva and opposite a solemn row of Buddha heads, you can drink yourself into nirvana with one of the house cocktails, a Tsunami martini, perhaps (Bailey’s Irish cream, Grolsch lager, Jaëgermeister and butterscotch schnapps).

The dining rooms are on two floors. Designed by architect Miguel Cancio Martin, they’re done up in gold, orange, red and yellow and decorated with Asian artifacts, carved wood pillars and velvet chaise longues. The look is part Buddhist temple, part Victorian railway carriage and part Louis XIV conquers the Ottoman Empire. A wooden “diva” stairway lined with votives leads down to what the press release describes as the V.I.P. room and what I’d call Siberia: a large, lugubrious space filled with dining nooks lit by points of light that make the people underneath look as though they’re about to be interrogated. One evening, the room’s soundtrack was Brian Eno meets Barry White–more of which can be heard on the new Man Ray CD, for sale at the front desk. There’s also a D.J. booth upstairs, where the music gets louder as the night progresses and the bar fills up.

Man Ray’s menu, as befits its namesake’s imagery, seems to have been lifted from a cookbook by Salvador Dali. It’s not often you get the chance to say to a waiter, “I’ll have the barracuda and the rabbit, please.” Mr. Klemeniuk has said that he wants the emphasis at his New York branch to be less on fashion and celebrities and more on the food. To this end, he has brought in Frédéric Kieffer, formerly of Water’s Edge and Windows on the World, as executive chef. Mr. Kieffer’s food is complex and interesting, but often it seems designed for shock value. If the dishes are brought to the table in the wrong order, which they were one evening, you can’t tell what they are by looking at them. “If I lived on another planet and someone wanted to introduce me to Earth cuisine, this would be impressive,” said a friend who was wading through a bowl of roasted frog’s legs under a white froth. Foam, particularly when associated with frogs, induces mixed feelings. But once I got past my misgivings, I enjoyed the light and creamy broth, which was made with mussels and corn and had an undertone of licorice, with a delicate polenta flan floating in the center.

“Ah, my favorite: tomato ice cream,” said my friend. The waiter had set down the dish that seems to have captured the imagination of every adventurous chef this summer. Two zeppelins of tomato sorbet were seasoned with fleur de sel to bring out their intense, ripe flavor, complemented by marinated cherry tomatoes and warm olive bread. As for the barracuda, I’d like to meet the person who could identify it as such in the ceviche. Very fresh, it tasted much like any firm white fish, served with avocado flavored with tomato essence and sturgeon caviar.

I’d go back to Man Ray just for the barbecued pig’s-trotter cake. It’s a play on a dish I used to make from Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking , à la St. Menehould, where you roll the trotters in bread crumbs and grill them. This more refined version had no bones; it was creamy and gelatinous under a crunchy coating, balanced by mache and corn shoots. Artichoke three ways–puréed, fried and cut into raw slivers, surrounded by a circle of tiny leaves of lambs’ lettuce, topped with a soft-boiled egg and lemon-olive oil dressing–seemed to be a lot of effort for such an unimpressive result.

There is a sushi bar in the back of the upstairs dining room, offering specialty rolls with names like “Kiss of the Spider,” “Holy Mountain” and “Rayer Graph” (whatever that is). We ordered “Deep Red.” The plate was topped with an empty lobster shell under which nestled rolls of sushi rice wrapped around a filling of asparagus, fried onion, avocado and frills of red-leaf lettuce, with a spicy dipping sauce. But the asparagus held firm, making them almost impossible to eat. Not a success.

A tasteless, slow-baked Arctic char topped with caviar wasn’t successful either, nor was the turbot, bizarrely crusted with goat gouda and flanked by a line of sliced squash. But the roasted duck breast with lychees, cut into tender, rare chunks and decorated with a wedge of baked pineapple, was excellent, as was the marjoram-scented rack of lamb, served with agnolotti made with preserved lemon to add a sharp, citrusy note. The roasted rabbit with tiny chanterelles and mustard spaetzle was also superb.

“How’s the roasted fig?” I asked the waiter when he brought the dessert menu.

“It’s nice, if you like figs,” he replied.

The figs were pretty nice, in fact, thinly sliced and lined up alongside a scoop of truly awful basil ice cream. After that, I didn’t hold out much hope for the white-chocolate crème brûlée, but it was unctuous and rich in a toasted-chocolate shell. Key lime and blueberry pie with almond meringue was a pleasantly messy and homey dessert. The sopapillas, puffy hot beignets, were great, especially with rice-pudding ice cream on the side.

When the celebrities have moved on, Man Ray is going to have to deliver a lot more in terms of the food. And it won’t matter how nice the waiter is, topping you up with “sparkling” water all evening long, when you get the bill and find that he’s charged you for three bottles–at $10 apiece. Talk about surreal.

MAN RAY

*

147 West 15th Street

929-5000

Dress: No sneakers, jeans or shorts

Noise level: Fairly high

Wine list: International, listed under three prices ($35, $65 and $95; 30 three- to four-figure reserve vintages

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, dinner, $19 to $29

Dinner: Sunday to Wednesday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday until 2 a.m.

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor