In the Flatiron District, A Dose
Of Peace and Tranquillity
Like everyone else, I’ve found it appalling-to say the least-to watch war live on television. But even more appalling is the fact that a great many people are doing this not just over a strong drink, but over their dinner, battling the ramparts of a microwaved chicken pot pie while seeing real people getting killed in real time.
How do they stand it? But even in times of peace, there are restaurants that cater to this appetite, such as the World Wrestling Entertainment group’s theme restaurant in Times Square, which Ivisited a while ago. Until recently, it was drawing in crowds of folks who wanted to dine surrounded by giant video monitors showing hulking men pounding each other with chairs, stomping on each other’s heads, flying off the sides of the ring and landing-all 250 pounds of them-flat on top of their opponents.
Why would anyone want to eat while watching such mayhem? I asked psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein. “Some people find this sort of violence energizing,” he said. “It appeals to some very primitive instincts. Males, traditionally, for tens of thousands of years were hunters: They had to kill and they got excited by the kill. And the kill is associated with food.”
Not for me. And these days, the more tranquil the environment, the better. If you are looking for somewhere to calm down, Lamu in the Flatiron district-an endearing little restaurant named for a small island off the coast of Kenya-fits the bill. The restaurant, which was previously Caffé Adulis (an Ethiopian restaurant that never quite made it), is owned by Sahle Ghebreyesus, who is from Eritrea.
Like many new restaurants, Lamu feels a bit like a lounge (with the sound turned down). In the front, there are high tables and a long, wood-paneled bar where you can buy the sort of house cocktails-such as watermelon martinis-that appeal to the very young, because they are as sweet as a soda. The dining room, which is almost Spartan in its simplicity, is decorated with seven-foot mirrors that hang along midnight-blue walls. Opposite is a long shelf of potted begonias that are lined up against a yellow wall-a perfect backdrop for a romantic pas de deux . Red votive candles are placed up by the bar. The black banquettes are about as comfortable as church pews, and the tables, devoid of linen, are made of polished mahogany and set with small marble candleholders shaped like oranges.
The name of the restaurant may be African, but the cooking is international, with roots in Italy and France. Chef Michael Burbella trained in Europe and went on to work with Kerry Heffernan at the Polo, and then later with George Blanc in Vonnas, France. He also collaborated with the Italian cookbook author Giuliano Bugialli. Mr. Burbella takes his inspiration from all over, and his plates are beautifully put together, with fresh, seasonal ingredients in artistic arrangements.
Lamu is not the sort of place you expect to start with “a gift from the kitchen,” but a delicious, creamy salmon rillette was delivered to the table one evening (accompanying a basket of foccaccia, country and olive breads and a bowl of seasoned olive oil), and on another night we were brought a paper-thin filo crisp topped with marinated mushroom and apple.
The menu is short, but it’s clear that each dish has been carefully thought out (no weird experiments).
“Tonight’s special is poussin,” said the waiter one evening.
“What kind?” asked one of my guests. The waiter stared at her blankly.
“It’s not a fish,” I said. “You’re thinking of poisson .”
She cringed. “The war has me totally addled.”
She didn’t have the poussin; instead, she began with poisson, a pretty terrine of smoked salmon with lentils that, in the dim lighting, looked like pearls of beluga. A goat cheese terrine was exactly what it claimed to be-it consisted of virtually all goat cheese that was wrapped in a thin slice of eggplant and garnished with kumquats, grilled baby leeks and a fennel salad with a walnut vinaigrette. A delicious hamachi, marinated in rice vinegar, came with slivered radishes and pickled onions. Pencil-thin asparagus was accompanied by rolls of dough that looked like fat cigars and were stuffed with more asparagus and garnished with silken prosciutto and fiddlehead ferns.
Mr. Burbella’s soups are also superb: They include a creamy wild-mushroom soup with porcini and slivers of crisp parmesan and truffle oil, and an unusual butternut squash soup laced with chunks of quince and roasted chestnuts.
He’s equally at home with meat or fish. Pan-roasted cod came with Jerusalem artichokes and red peppers and a delicate saffron sauce. The salmon was perfectly cooked, topped with a slice of crisp salmon skin, roasted cabbage, black trumpet mushrooms, pancetta and a smoked salmon reduction that brought the whole dish together nicely. A pink rib of Swiss chard added a rakish note to the wild striped bass served on a bed of the greens. The fish came with roast fingerling potatoes and a garnish of mushrooms that had been simmered in an intense vinegar marinade.
Juicy roast duck breast was served with mostardo di frutta and butternut squash purée. The fig- and almond-crusted rack of lamb came with fennel, artichokes and tomatoes. Both dishes were pleasant, but the cocoa-spiced squab, served with beets and puréed parsnips and a rich, 25-year-old balsamic vinegar sauce, was outstanding.
Each night, there’s a choice of three or four desserts, and I didn’t find a loser among them. They included a rhubarb and cream tart in a light pastry shell, and a stack of ice creams on a little poppyseed cake topped with chocolate sorbet. Disks of poppyseed cake were matched with orange sorbet, candied almonds and a chocolate ganache, and an almond-hazelnut mille-feuille was garnished with crème anglaise and fresh raspberries, and topped with a milk chocolate cream.
When I first came to Lamu before the war started, I had found it a little too quiet. Now I’ve changed my mind. What more do you want these days in a restaurant than good food, wine that hasn’t been marked up at four times its retail price, and friendly service in a peaceful setting? Lamu, if only for a couple hours, offers an escape.