Freud adored his mother, but I wonder what he would feel about naming a restaurant after her. I can’t imagine what he would think of this restaurant, which has opened in midtown Manhattan next door to the Dream Hotel.
The décor suffers from multiple-personality disorder. The dining rooms, on two levels connected by archways, are as visually jumbled as a dream. At the entrance, an enormous black Murano glass chandelier hangs over a floating blue mosaic-tile stairway that descends to the basement alongside a candlelit red brick wall. A white laminated-glass bar is set with white leather stools and large glass bowls of caramel-coated popcorn. Here, the dining tables are lined up against a banquette that has a padded back several feet high, like an oversized headboard in a 1930’s boudoir.
In the middle room, as we delve deeper into the unconscious, we find a vertical steel beam enclosed in Plexiglas. Seven carved wooden columns, shaped like giant banister legs as seen from the scale of a crawling child, are lined up behind a row of banquettes. They are oddly familiar, as is the blue turn-of-the-century chinoiserie wallpaper, printed with flowers and exotically plumaged birds. Look into your childhood … childhood … childhood ….
Up a set of stairs, you enter a smaller room. It has a marble fireplace and a parquet floor. Mounted to the low ceiling is a gallery of gilt-framed pictures, including portraits of Madame de Pompadour, the Spanish Infanta and swirls of half-clad figures that look like the work of Titian. You have to lean back in your swivel chair to look at them.
Amalia is owned by Greg Brier of Aspen, a restaurant and lounge in the Flatiron district, and is designed by Chris Sheffield and Steve Lewis of SLDesign (Aspen, Butter, Marquee). The décor is witty and amusing, but it doesn’t entirely work (especially the view through the kitchen door of a blue Cascade laundry bag I had one evening in the middle room).
Chef Ivy Stark worked at Dos Caminos and Rosa Mexicano and was sous chef at the Sign of the Dove and Cena. Her cooking is lively, adventurous and eclectic (which is only appropriate in this setting), and it has a modern Mediterranean slant. For a start, don’t miss the dates stuffed with duck confit and fig mostarda. They are rolled in Serrano ham and crisped in the oven, served on a bed of frisée in a sherry vinegar dressing that cuts the sweetness.
Ms. Stark’s menu is dotted with the names of unusual spices, such as Urfa chilis from Turkey, Syrian Aleppo (a chili with a cumin aftertaste), piquillo pepper and smoked paprika from Spain, and North African seasonings such as harissa, charmoula, and ras el hanout. Hamachi crudo, pristinely fresh, was garnished with red threads of Urfa chili, pieces of tangerine and crunchy vanilla-pickled onion. But what looked like four staring eyeballs were lined up at the foot of the plate, an unsettling image. They turned out to be dollops of sesame aioli mayonnaise with dots of Urfa chili purée.
Jumbo lump crab cakes were also very good, loosely packed and lightly bound with lemon Aleppo aillade.
Crisp fried tendrils of calamari were served in a bowl on a wonderful stew made with steamed white rounds of calamari, diced chorizo, piquillo peppers and white beans, garnished with a slice of grilled garlic baguette. Ms. Stark also uses chorizo as a stuffing for chicken breast that was rolled, breaded and sautéed, then crisped in the oven. It was sliced and served with a smooth red-brick-colored romesco sauce made with ancho chilis, bread, almonds and olive oil, and was sprinkled with raisins pickled in rice vinegar. It came with escarole and toasted Marcona almonds. Both these dishes were outstanding.
Fideua is a Catalan version of paella, made with thin short noodles from the region. Ms. Stark cooked it in a cast-iron pan with lime-green pointy florets of Romanesco cauliflower, San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, peas, gigante beans, mussels and clams. It was bound with a smoked paprika allioli—very good, but the sauce made it extremely rich.
Braised-beef short ribs agrodolce, marinated in tamarind, vinegar and white wine, were like butter, served with Tuscan black kale and puréed carrots seasoned a bit too heavily with vanilla. Swordfish marinated in Greek yogurt with cumin achieved a melting tenderness; it came with a hollandaise flavored with Seville orange and a pile of French fries stacked up like Lincoln Logs. The waiter set down a dish of three sea salts, one seasoned with fennel saffron citrus, another with smoked paprika and chili, all served with a tiny wooden spoon. I wonder how long those spoons will last.
Desserts by pastry chef John Miele, formerly of Aureole, include delicate kataifa-wrapped warm bananas with honey tangerine custard and caramel sauce, and a warm apple pecan crisp goosed up with a peppery Urfa chili ice cream, and Calvados sabayon. Hazelnut polenta cake with chocolate fudge sauce and ricotta gelato was a bit heavy. The bittersweet chocolate ganache with salted caramel and malted chocolate semi freddo was addictive.
Ms. Stark is a certified sommelier, and she put together the international wine list, which includes selections from Greece, Lebanon, Turkey and Morocco. It is grouped under headings: Reds are listed variously as “agile, attractive, tantalizing,” the whites as “lively, elegant, delicate.” Amalia also has a selection of about six house-made eaux de vies. The house cocktails have fittingly portentous names such as Ortensia, Demeter and Circe. Circe is made with gin and blood orange bitters, like Pink Gin. Enough of these, and as the goddess did to Freud’s beloved ancient Greeks, they will turn you into swine.