Darling, Would You Marry … Wait, Is That a Sunchoke Mousse?

moira 030408 Darling, Would You Marry … Wait, Is That a Sunchoke Mousse?Before I sat down to dinner at the refurbished One if by Land, Two if by Sea, I had a drink by the fireplace in front of the bar. A pianist was tinkling away at Chopin, and two couples, ensconced in leather armchairs, sipped glasses of Champagne. A handsome young Japanese man, dressed in a dark suit and blue striped tie, strode through the front door and sat down on a bar stool. He declined the bartender’s offer of a drink; instead he consulted his watch and pulled out a book. Every few minutes, a blast of cold air swept open the velvet curtains at the door, heralding the arrival of another customer, and he looked up eagerly. After half an hour, his face in a ferment, he ordered himself a drink and a plate of food.

This was not a happy start to a night at what has been called New York’s most romantic restaurant. But just as I was about to go to my table, the curtains parted again. This time they revealed a beautiful Japanese woman dressed in black, carrying an armful of small, expensively sourced shopping bags. The young man embraced her with unconcealed joy and they went into the dining room.

One if by Land opened 35 years ago in an 18th-century Village carriage house where Aaron Burr once lived; replicas of the guns used in his ill-fated duel with Alexander Hamilton are on display in a glass case. The three rooms are hung with chandeliers and 18th-century paintings and decked out with candles, bowls of roses and lavish flower arrangements. Mullioned windows look out onto a courtyard decorated with pine branches and twinkling lights; the piano plays all night long. The restaurant, which is consistently voted among the city’s 50 most popular in the Zagat guide, is the setting for many a proposal, wedding and anniversary dinner. But it has never been famous for its food.

Now Craig Hopson, a former surfer from Perth, Australia, who rose to become Terrance Brennan’s chef de cuisine at Picholine, has taken over the kitchen. Hopson has also worked at Guy Savoy, Troisgros and Lucas Carton, where he was a protégé of Alain Senderens. At Picholine, Mr. Hopson helped to revitalize the food with stunning results (I will never forget the all-game fall tasting menu). Now this talented chef is introducing a range of new dishes to One if by Land, along with a bar menu offering small plates for $12 to $15 apiece.

Dinner consists of a three-course prix fixe menu for $75, or a six-course tasting menu for $95. I began with Gruyère gnocchi, lightly breaded golden-brown puffs studded with wild burgundy snails and served on a bed of pickled yellow foot mushrooms with sage snail butter. A rich crumble made of wild mushrooms and Parmesan cheese was surrounded with dots of an aged balsamic and topped with creamy quenelle of sunchoke mousse, a frond of celery leaf tempura adding a crunch.

On the lighter side there was a sashimi of john dory in a leek vinaigrette sprinkled with button mushrooms, radishes, pea shoots, daikon sprouts and black truffles. Lightly smoked quail a la plancha, with jicama and cucumber kimchi and peanut aioli, brought four different regions of the world into one marvelous tiny appetizer, a lovely balance of tastes and textures, garnished with a frilly fried quail egg.

Mr. Hopson does imaginative things with seafood, such as poaching turbot in coconut milk and serving it under froth of foam coconut broth, with strands of peekytoe crab, pickled mango, cauliflower purée and sea beans. Diver scallops, plump and juicy, came with seared foie gras and porcini in a subtle sweet-and-sour mushroom broth laced with tiny white turnips.

But while there are now adventurous new dishes on the menu, at least one old stalwart remains: beef Wellington. I told my companion that this 50’s throwback was Winston Churchill’s favorite dish. “Of course,” he replied. “It’s a platinum version of school food.”

“Beef Wellington represents an impossible pinnacle of haute cuisine,” added my companion, who’d insisted on ordering it. “An entire century of French chefs exiled in England strove to do it.”

Gordon Ramsay still uses it to test the mettle of his young chefs on Hell’s Kitchen. Unfortunately, the version served here tonight wouldn’t have made the grade: The meat was dry and overcooked, the pastry soggy. In contrast, Mr. Hopson’s roast venison was sublime, rare and tender enough to eat with a spoon, and served with a marvelous chestnut caraway cake and roasted Seckel pear.