It looks like a work by Salvador Dalí: A thick piece of shiny orange satin cloth is neatly folded onto one end of a long white plate. It’s sprinkled with dark crumbs and large, translucent yellow beads and flanked by what appears to be a thick daub of white paint. “Sweet-potato ice cream, caramelized picholine olives, yuzu gel and yogurt,” the waiter explained. “This is our ‘pre-dessert.’”
With the exception of the food at WD-50, New York hasn’t seen that much avant-garde cuisine, with its atomizers, dehydrators, foams, gels and puffs. But there’s plenty to shock and challenge (particularly on the dessert menu) at Varietal, an ambitious new restaurant and wine bar in Chelsea.
It’s a lonely outpost on an industrial block, down from a huge construction site on the corner of Sixth Avenue, past an eerie window of headless, naked mannequins and opposite a quilting store. At the entrance, there’s a small lounge with a hardwood floor and a white bar with 12 seats. A corridor leads into the square dining room. The chandelier is made of wine glasses, and other than some magnified pictures of grapes, the white walls are bare. The décor is stark and minimalist, the better to show off the wines and the decidedly non-minimalist food.
The aptly named restaurant shows a special commitment to wine. Two of the friendly young staff are sommeliers, including the owner, Greggory Hockenberry. He’s put together a list of 225 bottles, mostly from lesser-known producers around the world. Upon seating, you’re handed a list of “grower-made” champagnes, starting at a hefty $18 a glass. Instead, I ordered a “flight” of wines for $16. They arrived with name tags attached to the stems of the glasses.
Executive chef Ed Witt, who was last at Il Buco, is a champion of small family farms—he lists purveyors on the back of the menu. One of his best dishes is baby octopus poached in olive oil, melting and crisped, served with sunchokes on salsa verde. Roasted beets sautéed in lemon agrumato oil (made by crushing together lemons and olives) are garnished with leaves of mâche and mullet bottarga (preserved roe): a lovely combination. Giant juicy prawns are served in a fragrant consommé infused with chamomile tea; sea scallops arrive two ways—seared with a crust of cumin and jasmine rice, and in a tartare with pomegranate and pumpkinseed oil.
The balance of tastes and textures is off-kilter in some dishes. Steamed monkfish liver, served on a disk of sautéed shredded pork shoulder with a miso and black-bean sauce, sounds interesting (and was eaten without guilt—you can’t force-feed a monkfish), but the shredded pork is tough. The gritty texture of mustard seeds is too much for a buttery, poached Tasmanian trout on a bed of lentils. And the pickled taste of tempura-fried caperberries, awkwardly paired with a blood-orange brown butter reduced to the consistency of ketchup, was awful and overwhelms the delicate John Dory.
But those caveats aside, Mr. Witt has some fine dishes in his repertoire. Pan-roasted duck is silken and meaty, served with the leg boned and stuffed with Marcona almonds, pork and a purée of medlar (a fruit that tastes a bit like apple). Moist slices of roast pork come with pork belly braised in cider and tobacco leaves: Even I, who hate cigars, have to admit that the subtle smoky aroma is wonderful. Lamb is crusted in horseradish and garnished with fried rosemary and caramelized picholine olives stuffed with anchovies. That wild-haired mushroom, hen of the woods, is roasted with grapeseed oil, infused with lemon verbena and star anise, and comes with an avocado sauce. I don’t know what the avocado is doing there—it’s tasteless—but the mushroom is heavenly.
Mr. Witt’s food is positively conservative compared with the desserts created by 23-year-old Jordan Kahn, who has worked at Per Se, French Laundry and, most recently, Chicago’s Alinea, the most far-out restaurant in the country. A molecular biologist in the kitchen, Mr. Kahn uses dried mushrooms, celery root, mastic (a resin from the evergreen tree), soy and God knows what else. Cherry-wood ice cream, anyone?
His creations look like paintings. A crisp ribbon of lime sabayon garnishes a plate strewn with broken macaroons, soybean nougatins and a slash of scarlet-wolfberry purée. The black sauce is a house-made ketjap manis, a caramel deglazed with soy, tamari, licorice powder and molasses. It’s decidedly odd, but the crunchy macaroons and tart wolfberry pull this Dadaist dish together.
Paper-thin dehydrated mushrooms garnish dollops of chocolate gel. It’s served with mastic, as well as a pear nectar that looks like a translucent gray soft-poached egg and melts onto the plate when you put your fork into it. The pear doesn’t have much taste, but the chocolate is good and the mushrooms deliver a pleasant, earthy crunch. “White chocolate cubism” is a box made of white chocolate filled with four layers of stuff—pistachio cream, white Belgian beer paste, chrysanthemum cream and licorice caramel—and dotted on top with a coagulated concentration of white beer.
Believe it or not, the cherry-wood ice cream is very good. It’s served with a shiny ribbon made of celery root purée, celery root cake, and fenugreek-scented toffee. (The ice cream is made by infusing milk with wood chips. Think of bourbon, which is tasteless until it goes into wooden barrels. Fenugreek is the ingredient that gives the maple flavor to Aunt Jemima maple syrup.)
With all its eagerness for experimentation, it’s easy to knock Varietal, and it’s certainly not the place for everybody. Looking around the room one evening, I noticed that barely anyone appeared to be over 35. But I do admire the restaurant’s creativity, especially with the desserts.
Tonight, the Valentine’s Day dessert is a “meditation in purple.” There will be 11 different purple flavors on the plate, among them black currant, hibiscus, Campari, beets and violets. Meanwhile, Mr. Kahn is working on a new dish made with plantains, brie, sunflower seeds and milk chocolate. I can’t wait.