Chef Valenti Is Long Gone, But Cascabel Is Still Great

After I had taken some friends to an indifferent meal in Chinatown recently, I tried to think of a way to save the evening. It occurred to me that only a few blocks up from Canal Street was Cascabel, where we might go for dessert. Given the way the rest of dinner had been, I didn’t think slices of orange and a cup of tea were going to turn things around.

When we arrived, instead of giving us a number and telling us to wait in line for an hour, the maître d’ took our coats and seated us at a pleasant candlelit table by the window near the bar. “I feel as though I just got out of jail,” said one of my friends. So we ended the evening on a high note, with unexpectedly delicious desserts that included a molten chocolate cake, a pear sampler (strudel, sorbet and poached fruit) and a “new fashioned” baked Alaska that was a wonderful combination of light espresso meringue around caramel crunch ice cream. There were also more than a dozen single malt whiskies on the list, along with interesting dessert wines and brandies; and our waitress was not only well informed but friendly. The experience was so pleasant, in fact, that I couldn’t wait to go back and see what the rest of the food at Cascabel was like.

My husband wasn’t so keen. “Whenever I’ve eaten there, the dining room has always been deserted,” he said. “And I can’t stand the décor. Those red lacquered walls and tilted mirrors remind me of sex clubs from the 70’s.” But I prevailed and we went for dinner on what is probably the worst night for eating out in Manhattan, the Monday after New Year’s Eve (and coincidentally, the day that Geraldine Ferraro, whose son, John Zaccaro Jr., owns the restaurant, declared her candidacy for U.S. Senator).

“I see the place is packed as usual,” commented my husband dryly about the all-but-empty dining room as we sat down. He was somewhat mollified when we were handed the wine list, which was extremely good and reasonably priced, and our pretty young waitress seemed to know what she was talking about. I couldn’t help agreeing with him about the décor, which, however you describe it, definitely looks a bit dated. The German friend with us liked the look of the place. “I always feel comfortable in vulgar surroundings,” he said. “I prefer them to superficial stylishness.”

There was never any question about the food at Cascabel when the talented chef Tom Valenti was working here. A year and a half ago, he left and was replaced by Sam Hazen, a teacher at the Culinary Institute of America who had previously worked at the Quilted Giraffe, Quatorze and the Terrace, and Le Gavroche in London (the restaurant owned by the celebrated Albert Roux-now retired-who shocked my mother when she saw him on television tasting a sauce and returning the spoon to the pan without rinsing it). I was curious about Mr. Hazen’s food, and I was wondering what to expect when our waitress arrived to tell us about the specials. “We have seared sea scallops with Japanese shiitake mushrooms cultivated in oak,” she said. “Where’s that?” asked my husband, mishearing her and imagining the inhabitants of the remote island of Och, eking out a living on mushrooms supplied to fancy restaurants.

She looked puzzled. “Usually shiitakes are cultivated in moss or sawdust,” she continued patiently. “The oak gives them a special meaty flavor. They’re great.” I was disappointed when I realized my German friend had opted for a salad, but it turned out to be a wonderful combination of thin slices of roasted beets folded over goat cheese and served with frisée, haricots verts and walnuts. When you bit into the beets, the cheese came as a surprise. Warm lump crab meat, served inside a crispy phyllo circle with tomato compote and mustard, was sensational, as was the roasted quail-which was stuffed with figs, wrapped with prosciutto and laid upon a bed of couscous. Smoked salmon “pastrami,” cured in coriander, black pepper and ginger, was also very good, accompanied by a potato knish filled with mustard, sour cream and crispy onions.

The German was intrigued by the idea of the “raviolo of short ribs.” (It sounds strange, like asking for “uno spaghetto, please.”) The raviolo looked like an old lady’s mob cap, a frilly mound stuffed with braised short ribs off the bone and topped with a grilled portobello mushroom in a pool of rich, dark red wine sauce. “This is what they call in Viennese German a Serviettenknödel,” he said, wiping the juices from his chin with his napkin. It was absolutely delicious. Soon we were passing our plates-which were imaginatively decorated with vegetable chips in fanciful shapes-around the table as if we were back at the Chinese restaurant. Mercifully, this time the food was great.

Tenderloin of tuna was cooked rare inside a peppery crust and served with a whole baby bok choy and a Ponzu sauce. Grilled chops and pan-roasted loin of lamb were nicely pink and came with eggplant caviar, celery root and garlic confit that had the texture of silk. I don’t know what Mr. Hazen did to get such taste from the melting, sweet onions he served with the venison and quail with green peppercorn and currant sauce, but they were out of this world. For dessert this time, we opted for pastry chef Christine Allard’s tropical fruit salad, which was not the boring dish it often is, but was perked up with ginger sauce and included the best mango sorbet I have ever tasted, sprinkled with green peppercorns. At the end of dinner, the plate of petits fours included a marvelous butter cookie. When she saw how much we liked it, our waitress brought us several more. “Mexican wedding cookies,” she said.

Cascabel **1/2

218 Lafayette Street, between Spring and Broome streets 431-7300

Dress: All sorts

Noise level: Can be loud

Wine list: Excellent, with many good buys

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $16 to $26, five-course tasting menu $48, five-course vegetarian menu $42

Hours: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* Good

** Very Good

*** Excellent

**** Outstanding

No Star-Poor Chef Valenti Is Long Gone, But Cascabel Is Still Great