Here’s a novelty item to toss on the grill this summer: tuna ribs. At Bar Q, they’re coated with a paste of yuzu and green chili before they’re grilled.
“Don’t worry, dear,” said our waiter, sounding like a hospital orderly as he set a plateful down in front of me. “The cucumber salad will cool them off nicely.”
I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d given me a pat on the back.
The restaurant—not a bar—is owned by Anita Lo, co-proprietor of Annisa on Barrow Street, where she has acquired not only a dedicated following for her modern Asian- and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, but a Michelin star to boot. I don’t know who started the fashion for calling restaurants bars when they’re not (Bar Martignetti, Bar Boulud, Bar Blanc, Bar Milano), but Ms. Lo has climbed aboard that train with Bar Q—a feeble pun (it serves Asian barbecue). It also has a seafood-and-sashimi bar and, of course, the more traditional kind.
But what about those tuna ribs? They may sound like a gimmick, but they were inspired. Long, skinny bones about half an inch wide, covered with subtly spiced, lemony, charred gray meat.
The ribs are just one of several successes. Garlic-fried milk, garnishing a grilled loin of lamb, is like an Asian version of fried brie, cut in triangles that are soft and custardy in the center. Slices of juicy spit-roasted pork belly, rimmed with crackling skin, are served with kimchee and glossy Chinese steamed buns, to be eaten like sandwiches.
Bar Q’s cocktails are also terrific. They include the Japanese Pickletini—a glass of Hendrick’s gin in which floats a green lump of cucumber ice, like a dyed fortune cookie; nicely tart yuzu cosmos; and juleps made with shiso leaves instead of mint. The 80-bottle wine list has many interesting choices, with nearly a quarter under $50.
BAR Q CONSISTS of two storefronts knocked together on Bleecker Street, a few paces from some of the most expensive boutiques in the city. The first time I came here, I was shown into a small anteroom by the seafood bar, where Kumamoto oysters the size of a thumbnail and tiny clams were piled on ice. A cluster of people were drinking cocktails around the bar at the entrance. From our table, I could see through a doorway that led into a larger dining room. Behind a picture window at the back of the restaurant is a steel-framed outdoor greenhouse and a paved garden, apparently still under construction. After my companion and I had been sitting at our table for a while, we noticed that the room had become incredibly loud. “There are only 10 people in here,” he said. “But they sound like 30.”
The next time I was offered a table in this room, I refused. Unfortunately, the dining room proper is also noisy, and the tables here are jammed together. Designed by Hiromi Tsuruta (Jewel Bako and Soto), it’s elegant, minimalist and white—in other words, cool, but not exactly comfortable. It has white marble countertops, white leather banquettes and white round booths. The blond wood tables and bare white walls are lit softly by large round circles recessed in the white ceilings.
The staff, dressed in black with long white bistro aprons, are affable, but there are inexplicably long waits between courses. Once in a while, Ms. Lo herself appears, a kerchief on her head. Yes, folks, the chef is in the kitchen!
And what a blessing when she is. One of Ms. Lo’s favorite cooking techniques is tea-smoking, and she does it brilliantly, the food remaining moist but with the smoky aroma of tea leaves. Tea-smoked salmon, with the texture of sashimi, comes with a smear of scallion and tofu sauce, a tea-marbled quail egg and, oddly, a shooter of vichyssoise. Tea-smoked duck breast, medium rare under a crispy skin, is spiced with chili and lemon.
GIVEN ALL THESE triumphs, it comes as a surprise that the barbecued dishes are hit and miss. Baby back ribs weren’t long enough cooked. The stuffed sparerib is a better choice, but incredibly rich. A boneless wedge is filled with a spring-roll-like mixture of ground pork, carrots and glass noodles, cooked in a Vietnamese barbecue sauce. Braised pork “wings” (actually cut from the shank) are glazed with a Korean-style barbecue sauce made with gochu jang (Korean fermented chili and soybean paste). They are deliciously fatty, but the sauce tasted mainly of ketchup. “Nice to go with your $150 bottle of wine,” commented my companion.
There were other stumbles: bland fritters made with unagi (barbecued Japanese eel), thin avocado soup dolloped with three spoonfuls of fish tartare that failed to bring it to life.
Desserts need work, too. Warm walnut soup (in spring?) was like eating sludge, but it came with a wonderful malted crumbled halvah-like cookie topped with wild rice krispie. I couldn’t see the point of the deep-fried sesame rice balls (like the ones you find at dim sum places in Chinatown). They were doughy and tasteless. You get six, but I could barely finish half of one, despite the pleasant caramel dipping sauce. The best dessert (especially for summer) is the refreshing chilled coconut soup with fruit and mint.
I am sure that dining here is much more pleasant in the garden. I also imagine that given Ms. Lo’s significant talents, the kinks in the kitchen will be worked out.
As far as the tuna ribs are concerned, I can’t wait to see the fishmonger’s face when I ask for some at the store.