Dennis Foy is a difficult guy to pin down. A pioneer of New American Cuisine in the late 70’s, he’s spent the last 30 years shuttling between restaurants in New York City and New Jersey. In the late 80’s, he opened Mondrian in midtown (with Tom Colicchio as sous chef), and in the 90’s, he had a popular bistro, EQ, in the West Village. Now he’s re-emerged in Tribeca. But not expensive, residential Tribeca—his new eponymous spot is in an odd pocket, a quiet no man’s land just below stubbornly ungentrified Canal Street’s stereo stores, Chinese gift shops and Holland Tunnel traffic. And that just adds to the restaurant’s charm.
The premises used to house Lo Scalco, a beige, cathedral-like space with white, curved beams and banquettes like church pews—very much your temple of gastronomy. But now the dining room, which Mr. Foy has redone on a bit of a shoestring, straddles the line between formal and casual. The beams have been painted bright, jazzy colors—blue, green and red—and gold-leaf wallpaper covers the upper half of the walls, which are decorated with Mr. Foy’s land-and-seascape paintings (they’re for sale). The gorgeous round lanterns that hang from the ceiling give off a soft, pleasing light; they’re made with silk-ribbed cranberry stripes that resemble the feathery undersides of mushroom caps. There are white cloths, candles and vases of flowers on the tables. The sommelier decants the wine and says “Cheers!”, and Mr. Foy’s wife and partner, Estelle Quiñones-Foy, oversees the front of the house.
I first tasted Mr. Foy’s food many years ago at the Tarragon Tree in New Jersey. I remember a dish that seemed far out in those days: soft-shell crabs on spinach pasta dotted with red caviar. His new menu is short: just seven first courses and eight main dishes. It’s contemporary American food with French influences—plus the occasional mad-Spanish-scientist-in-the-kitchen flourish bringing it right up to date.
One of his more exotic creations is called “eis and snow.” A slab of a buttery foie gras terrine (“French-goose foie gras,” he said later over the telephone, “not duck liver from Hudson Valley”) is served with an eiswein gelée and a thick daub of puréed prunes. A fluttering of mysterious white flakes is sprinkled over top. I asked the waiter what the flakes were.
“Crystallized foie gras.” he explained.
How on earth do you crystallize foie gras? I envisioned a kitchen counter in the back with rows of test tubes and Bunsen burners. Mr. Foy explained it to me later over the telephone: “It’s just rendered foie gras fat mixed with tapioca powder. Simple and seamless.”
I can’t wait to try it at home.
A snowy filet of sea bass arrives on a pool of intensely flavored tomato sauce and under a foam of tomato water. It’s garnished with a brownish-black, paper-thin sheet that looks like some exotic dried seaweed. It’s made, I discovered later, with puréed olives, vegetable stock and agar spread out into fine layers and baked in the oven. It’s a witty touch that works well with the fish.
Many of the dishes are painterly, delivering a strong visual impact in color and symmetry. A salad of blood oranges and roast-beet salad is dotted with colorful drops and squiggles of three sauces—balsamic, red-beet vinaigrette and green-chive oil. It tastes as good as it looks.
Mr. Foy also likes to contrast flavors and textures in unusual ways. Seared sea scallops basted with chives and butter are served with porcini, along with whipped parsnips cooked in vanilla-scented milk and Savoy cabbage laced with lardons. Diced apple, a touch of cinnamon and rice-wine vinegar enliven a tuna tartare. Broccoli rabe adds a pleasant bitter contrast to the sweetness of acorn squash, served with pink chunks of a roast loin of lamb.
One of the chef’s signature dishes is seared gnocchi. They have a nice crispy finish and are served in a bowl with sage, chives, strands of Parmigiano Reggiano and sliced button mushrooms. (One night they were on the leaden side, another night they were terrific.) Another Foy classic is a tian of crabmeat (like a crustless crabcake) made with jumbo lump crabmeat, chopped celery and onion, and seasoned with cayenne, paprika, thyme and chives.
You can also get a good dry-aged sirloin, which is first seared, then roasted. The cassoulet Toulousain, made with lamb and foie gras sausage, was pleasant but bland.
Kimberly Bugler’s excellent desserts range from the exotic to classic French. They include a molten chocolate cake served with blood-orange Campari granita and blood-orange sorbet, a nice contrast of sweet and tart. A chocolate-hazelnut dome has a coffee brûlée center and comes with a rich dulce de leche sauce. The coconut-caramel bar with mango-lime sorbet is garnished with a lychee ribbon resembling miniature pappardelle.
Dennis Foy is expensive, which makes it a destination restaurant for some and a neighborhood hangout for the denizens of Tribeca’s fancier lofts. The dining room is pleasant, comfortable and—miracle of miracles these days—quiet enough that you can actually hold a conversation. If you’re looking for smart, interesting food in a congenial setting, it’s worth the trip.