From Spring Street we looked through the picture window and saw a white marble bar filled with young women perched on stools, shopping bags at their feet. It was lunchtime, so the two of us decided to drop into FR.OG for a sandwich. Instead of being seated at the bar, which was full, we were led into the dining room.
It looks like a 1960’s nightclub. Circular booths with baby blue corduroy-and-leather banquettes are cocooned in gauzy white curtains. Black tables are set with black place mats. Above them, delicate red-and-white glass Moroccan lamps shaped like flowers hang from long wires. At the far end of the room, beyond a red leather partition, a round hallway with walls covered in mirror-ball mosaic tiles leads to another dining room down a flight of stairs. It’s white, orange and pink.
At lunch, the room upstairs was empty but for a table of three Asian businessmen sharing a bottle of red wine. (The restaurant has since suspended lunch and brunch service until after Labor Day.) A black-clad waiter brought us a platter piled with hot grilled flat bread accompanied by a spicy chickpea dip. It was so good that we finished every bit, not leaving much room for our main courses, salmon pastilla and briouat, a flaky pastry filled with peekytoe crab.
FR.OG stands for France Origine; the menu travels over the former French colonies, Lebanon, Morocco and Vietnam, picking dishes from here and there and sometimes fusing them onto one cross-cultural plate. The restaurant is owned by chef Didier Virot and his partner Philip Kirsch of Aix Brasserie on the Upper West Side. Before Aix, Mr. Virot had a fine namesake restaurant that fell victim both to its location—in a midtown hotel—and to post-9/11 economics. He was also chef de cuisine at Jojo and the opening executive chef at Jean-Georges.
I have always admired Mr. Virot’s food, which is inventive, ambitious and interesting. At FR.OG, which strives to be both hip and serious about food, the cuisine, alas, sometimes runs aground. The menu is complex and the prices are high. There’s an awful lot happening on the oversized, fancifully decorated plates. When it works, it’s terrific, but the dishes are hit or miss.
Nem ran, Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with shrimp or pork, were unpleasantly soft and doughy, served with a salad that consisted mainly of over-salted slivered carrots. The crab filling in the briouat we had for lunch was lackluster; the salmon pastilla wasn’t much better, though the pastry was crispy and flaky. The boned duck leg stuffing in a pastilla I had one evening was mushy and tasteless.
And yet Mr. Virot turns out a spectacular smooth, peppery corn soup that hails from no particular place. There’s a refreshing Lebanese-style fattoush salad of mâche and radishes with mint and basil vinaigrette, topped with a long curled sesame crisp; in stark contrast, a flat-tasting cucumber salad seemed to have languished too long in the refrigerator.
Mr. Virot’s inventiveness is best revealed in a dish such as seared lamb loin, which was sliced thin in a diagonal line across the plate, dusted with sumac and dotted with a harissa-saffron vinaigrette. Seared pieces of monkfish (“tagine style”) came arranged in a bowl of lovely broth with asparagus, zucchini and green olives, flavored with basil, lime and saffron. Grouper roasted with almond and honey was matched with a crispy rice cake, snow peas and a sharp lemony sauce that brought it all together.
An excellent braised lamb shank with cinnamon, chickpeas, red onion and couscous was served together with slices of rare duck breast. “Why the duck?” asked my son, who’d ordered it for dinner. I started to laugh, remembering the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts. (Groucho: “I say that’s a viaduct.” Chico: “ … Why a duck? Why a no chicken?”) The duck seemed to have wandered in from another dish.