Sapa’s Elegant Décor Masks Hit or Miss Cuisine

Sapa, a new restaurant on a dingy block in Chelsea, is named after a mountain town in North Vietnam, established by French colonists in the 1920’s as an escape from the hot weather. But there’s nothing remotely Vietnamese or even colonial about the décor of this new restaurant/trendy bar and lounge located in a century-old building, formerly an electronics warehouse. Sapa’s designers, from the firm of AvroKO (they also designed Public and Odea), have created a magical, airy space two stories high, juxtaposing the old-concrete beams and exposed brick walls-with the new-square white gauze lanterns, trellised booths and a translucent onyx counter where one of the chefs turns out an array of rolls. A vast white gauze curtain diffuses scores of twinkling lights and separates the front dining room from the back.

In such a setting, it should hardly come as a surprise that as of this writing a bowl of pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup with beef, will set you back $19. Or that a main course of braised short ribs runs at $28. Sapa’s cuisine is described as “Modern French Vietnamese”; you know whenever the word “modern” as opposed to “ethnic” is used, go ahead and add another decimal point to the price.

Sapa’s executive chef, Patricia Yeo, produced wonderful three-star Asian-American food at AZ, which has since closed. She also happens to have a master’s degree in biochemistry from Princeton University and went on to experiment with fusion Catalan cuisine at Pazo, recently returning from two years exploring the food of Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

When four of us arrived for dinner recently, the long bar in the front room was already packed. A pretty hostess with waist-length dreadlocks and a bare midriff led us through a lounge decked out with white leather sofas and Japanese trees in pots, into the main dining room set back behind the gauze curtain. We ordered a round of house cocktails-Lillet and gin martinis and vodka lemonade laced with fresh mint; the latter was a little too sweet.

To go with the drinks, we also ordered a plate of assorted wontons and a selection of rolls. All of these would probably go down fine after a couple more rounds of gin and Lillet martinis at the bar. But the rolls were devoid of seasoning and could’ve been filled with just about anything at all. Was that sausage or crab in the “imperial” roll? Wrapped in Boston lettuce? Not sure. Raw wild salmon with salmon roe was bland, the spring roll tasteless. As for the wontons, who cared what was inside these leathery pouches. You get better in Chinatown at a quarter of the price.

One of my guests was already becoming disgruntled. “This place is all looks and little content.” But taste the pumpkin and sweet potato soup and you will change your mind at once. It is wonderful, laced with spicy pumpkin seeds, ginger and pumpkin-seed oil, a creamy, heavenly blend with subtle warm spices. The cocoa and peanut glazed pork spareribs are also terrific, sweet and unctuous without being cloying. I’d come back just for these. I also liked the salad of julienne beets and goat cheese with toasted filberts. Potato knishes were a tad doughy, sprinkled with osetra caviar; not exactly French or Vietnamese, but decent bar food I suppose.

The back dining room where we were sitting is spacious and prettily decorated with antique mirrors, trellised booths and white French garden urns. But it isn’t very comfortable. General conversation across the table was a real effort. The tables are too big and noise bounces off the hard surfaces. The lighting, from square white lanterns hanging from the ceiling, is flat, so the room doesn’t glow like the front part of the restaurant, which is awash in a sea of votive candles.

My disgruntled friend was now onto his main course of quail, which looked beautiful but, like the rolls we’d tried, lacked salt. “They assume the eater wants shape and color and is not going to notice content,” he said. “They’re trying to be fashionable, with generic, piled-up food. It’s all about plating.”

But across the table came a divergent view. Another of my guests shouted that her steak was the best she’d ever had. It was a perfectly cooked and seasoned dry-aged rib-eye steak, with sautéed greens and onion rings served with aioli and ketchup. No salt in the batter for the rings, even though it was light and airy as could be. The steak, however, was outstanding.

And so, over my visits, it went. One evening, sea bass with rock shrimp hash was under-seasoned, and the seared tuna, crusted with ginger and served with braised oxtail and arugula salad, lacked character. Another night, the “twice-cooked” chicken with chicken dumplings was irreproachable, and tender slices of rare duck were served with eggplant in a lovely, delicate red curry sauce. Cod roasted in parchment with mushrooms was also good, if a tad overcooked, with celery root purée and pieces of celery root.

The desserts, however, need work. They include a too-dense warm chocolate fondant with citrus salad and honey ice cream, and a dull caramelized banana tarte tartin. The vanilla panna cotta had the consistency of thin cream, but it came with a bracing lychee and pineapple tian. Peanut butter gianduja was like a Snickers bar, served with black currant jelly, the best of the lot.

But all this aside, the food at Sapa has potential. My dissatisfied companion conceded that it wouldn’t take much to get things right. “What I ask for in a restaurant is that its cooking should be better than you expected and they should have one dish you’ll come back for.”

Sapa should be able to manage that and more.