Jovial Occasion: Italian-Inspired New American on Upper East Side

112805 article moira Jovial Occasion: Italian Inspired  New American on Upper East SideJovia

Two Stars

135 East 62nd Street

(at Lexington Avenue)

212-752-6000

Dress: Casual chic

Lighting: Varies from room to room, soft and low to overhead pinpoint

Noise Level: Reasonable

Wine List: Approximately 250 bottles, American and Italian, 30 wines by the glass

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Main courses, $23 to $38

Lunch: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Sunday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11:30 p.m.

Brunch: Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

The menu descriptions look like lines from a Surrealist poem:

fennel-burnt bluefin tuna cheeks

hand-torn pasta muddled tomatoes

sea urchin-perfumed Italian beans

violet hills rabbit

venison cooked in the wild

exotic orange spuma

And indeed, I began to feel quite surreal myself as I ate my way along a row of “hand-picked” scallops lined up with orange rounds of pickled cantaloupe cut to the same size and draped with prosciutto, and thence to a bacon-and-porcini-laced risotto where I bit down into warm, juicy raw oysters.

Jovia opened last month on two floors of an Upper East Side townhouse. The chef who’s coming up with some of the most imaginative food this neighborhood has seen for some time is Josh DeChellis. He was last at Sumile, where his food was a fusion of Japanese and French cuisine. His impressive résumé includes Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco, Rocco DiSpirito’s Union Pacific and stints in the kitchens of David Bouley, Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

The restaurant is owned by Stephen and Thalia Loffredo, of Zoë in Soho, and the Venetian-inspired décor is by Jeffrey Beers. You walk into a narrow room, with a very long bar, that has tables for two down one side and an open kitchen in the back. The dining room proper is on the parlor floor. Beyond a central dining alcove seating eight, there’s a back room with a modern glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling and a large fireplace decorated with candles and sprays of red berries. The space, hung with pink satin curtains and grayish-brown flock wallpaper, is nicely lit and comfortable. The L-shaped front room is bigger and has windows onto the street. But overhead pinpoint lights at the tables add 10 years to the face of anyone sitting underneath. The plain, highly polished red wood tables are set with burgundy-colored leather mats that have a small square—slightly larger than a postage stamp—cut in the center. What’s the hole for? “To make it grip better,” our waiter said.

“I bet each member of the staff has a different idea,” commented one of my companions. The last one we asked had the right response: “It’s there to make you wonder.”

Like the menu. It begins with a dish called “Sliced Jack Trevally Artichoke Purée.”

If you’re not in the food business, you might not know that Jack Trevally is a member of the Yellow Fin family.

“I like the notion of kinship in the food family, and I accept without skepticism ‘sea urchin perfume,’” my companion said, looking up from his menu. “‘Christmas gifts for friends of the Yellow Fin family.’”

The jack trevally was served in raw, pristinely fresh, even slices with sea salt, a delicate artichoke purée and a spicy shallot pickle. The sea-urchin perfume (the word has since been changed to “scent” on the menu), which came with black sea bass, was rather lost on the beans, however, and the fish was a tad overcooked.

Potted suckling pig with duck is a pleasant coarse pâté, and it comes in a jar looking like something dispatched by Fortnum & Mason “for the young duke.” The grilled octopus is superb: smoky, charred slices with fingerling potato salad, paprika onions and a black-olive sauce. But I didn’t much care for the “fennel-burnt” bluefin cheeks, which had the consistency of shredded beef and were strangely reminiscent of kippers, or for the steamed duck egg en cocotte in a confusion of ingredients that included rabbit, mushrooms and snails.

There are a half-dozen pasta dishes available in whole or half portions. The hand-torn pasta was cooked al dente, but it was so thin the pieces stuck together like mille feuille. The “muddled” tomato sauce with anchovies and garlic couldn’t decide whether to be a refined sauce or a full-bodied peasant ragu. But I loved the veal ravioli, made with meat from the shank, served in a tomato ragu and topped with cow’s milk ricotta.

One evening, the special was Canadian snow goose.

“Isn’t that an endangered species?” my companion wondered. “In Canada, the only way to ‘pump’ them is to hit them on the head with a golf ball. Of course, any goose that comes over the border is fair game.”

In fact, there’s now an overabundance of snow geese that actually harms the Arctic wild. So I ate my goose, which was wonderfully gamy, without too much guilt.

Mr. DeChellis’ loin of venison “cooked in the wild” was a dish worthy of the court of Louis XIV or Charles I. The waiter brought it in a large crock topped with a pastry shell that he sliced open at the table. The venison had been cooked on juniper and pine branches, and a wonderful aroma wafted out, mingled with the scent of mushrooms and chestnuts.

Quail and duck were deboned and layered in pieces looking rather like a loose meatloaf. The flesh was pink and succulent (and I detected liver in there, too). This marvelous dish was served with roasted Jerusalem artichokes, persimmon and black truffles.

Mr. DeChellis cooks chicken sous vide (in a sealed plastic bag in water) at a very low temperature, so it comes out extraordinarily tender. It came with bacon, polenta mixed with mascarpone, and green olives, and reminded me, oddly, of the roast chicken with bacon rolls and bread pudding we used to have when I was a child in England—but a thousand times better.

Wine director Scott Lawrence has put together a very good list of American and Italian wines, many from boutique vineyards. Mr. Loffredo himself was on hand to direct us to the very cheapest choices on the list—and there are some good buys, including a Greco di Tufo for $22 and an Aleatico di Puglia for $32.

Pastry chef Monica Bellissimo previously worked at Della Rovere. Skip the dull pear and hazelnut clafoutis and instead try the wonderful dark chocolate soufflé cake, the light beignets with mascarpone date cream, or the warm chocolate panettone that comes with, among other things, ice cream laced with bits of toffee.

The owners and chef are modestly billing their new place as an American restaurant with Italian influences, but it’s more than that. With Jovia, the Loffredos and Mr. DeChellis are bringing innovative and genuinely exciting food to a neighborhood that could certainly use some.