318 West 23rd Street
Dress: Casually elegant
Noise level: Reasonable
Wine list: Expensive but interesting
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Prix fixe dinner (5:30 to 7 P.M.) $19.98; dinner main courses $13 to $29
Dinner: Sunday to Thursday 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M., Friday and Saturday to midnight
* *: Very good
* * *: Excellent
* * * *: Outstanding
No star: Poor
Half my friends seem to be headed for the Caribbean lately, but I am fated to get no closer to the beach than Pacific East, a spinoff of an Amagansett, L.I., restaurant that recently opened in Chelsea. The other evening when I went there it was rainy and cold, and I was in a foul temper because I had just spent more than an hour looking for a book a friend had sent me about her adventures in the West Indies. (“Just tell her you thought it was interesting,” my son Alexander suggested, to which my husband replied, “That’s exactly what you tell a friend when you hate it.”)
The candle on our table was in a blue glass holder that looked like a Noxzema jar. To one side of the narrow dining room, which was painted a warm mustard yellow and hung with black-and-white Oriental-theme photographs, was a small bar. Above our head there was a large, indented kidney shape in the ceiling, painted cobalt blue and lit from beneath the sides like a swimming pool at night.
“It reminds me of a David Hockney,” said my husband.
“Hockney’s swimming pools are totally different,” I replied. “They’re rectangular.”
Immediately, we fell into an argument.
Pacific East is owned by Alexander Duff and chef Michael Castino, who created a successful restaurant of the same name in Amagansett last summer (Mr. Duff was also one of the founders of Pacific Time, a popular restaurant in Miami) that serves similar food. The menu is Asian-inspired and French-influenced, with elements from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea and Japan.
A basket of flat bread and sliced baguette with nam prik, a spicy Thai eggplant dipping sauce, was set down on the table; our waitress, who was knowledgeable and turned out to be very good on wine, brought over the menus. The wine list is expensive, with better prices and a more interesting selection in whites than reds (although she suggested a light zinfandel that turned out to be excellent).
In this simple setting, with its vaguely summery feel (not entirely convincing in the middle of winter, it must be said), you would expect the food to be more of a bargain. But first courses hover around the $10 range, and main dishes average 25 bucks. Some of the menu may be hard going for the untutored, who might pause at such descriptions as “cedar-planked” black cod, “line-caught” tuna, or “genuine” red snapper and wonder exactly what those terms mean. (On another night, a friend reading the descriptions on the Pacific East menu was reminded of Howard Johnson’s, which he said used to have on theirs “freshly poured” orange juice.)
We began with delicious shrimp spring rolls with a mustardy sauce, and crisp Malpeque oyster “shooters,” flavored with cilantro and served with marinated cucumber and Korean kimchi. A salad made with slivers of chicken, spinach, sugar snap peas and won tons, all tossed together, was pronounced “Pan Asian comfort food” by the person eating it, although I felt it looked like the sort of lunch I make for myself sometimes from leftovers. Tuna tartare seasoned with coconut juice and served in half a coconut with Idaho potato chips on the side was dramatic in its presentation, but didn’t have much taste and wasn’t worth the hefty $12 it cost.
But I had two dishes that alone are worth the trip: the fried “genuine” whole red snapper and the “cedar-planked” black cod. The snapper was stuffed with ginger, fried in a tempura batter until moist and flaky, and served with green curry rice noodles and a sprightly dipping sauce. The black cod was pristine fresh, a chunk placed on top of mashed celery root and parsnips scented with truffle and surrounded by sweet-sour mirin pan juices. It was exquisite.
I also liked the grilled salmon with wasabi potato gratin and snow peas, but the tuna in tempura batter was less successful, rather flat, although it came with beautifully cooked rice flavored with toasted sesame seeds. The grilled sirloin with tamarind barbecue sauce and roasted-beet mashed potatoes, piled in a pink heap that looked like raspberry sherbet, was also very good.
There are vegetarian dishes on the menu, but they weren’t the kitchen’s strength. The noodles with Peking duck were disappointing, dry and bland. Won ton tofu ravioli were pleasantly spicy but not very interesting.
For dessert, there was a creamy rice pudding, a bittersweet chocolate bombe with a molten center, a honey-toasted coconut baked Alaska (not flambéed at the table, alas) and a crème brûlée flavored with Tahitian vanilla.
“This has never been much of a street for restaurants,” said one of my friends as she finished a refreshing fruit soup made with diced apple and sorbet. “But who knows? I’ve always thought the restaurant business is a lot like marriage: the triumph of hope over experience.”
I wandered over to the bathroom and stood in line. A young man was standing next to me, and I asked him what he thought of the restaurant.
“Great!” he answered with enthusiasm, adding that he had just moved into London Terrace, a large apartment complex down the block. “Cineplex Odeon is across the street, all these art galleries have opened up. I love this neighborhood.”
It’s certainly come a long way since the only place to eat around here was the El Quijote, the wonderful old Spanish restaurant in the Chelsea Hotel. If the expression “cedar-planked” were used in that context, it would not describe a fish, but the way a customer has been known to feel after a night of drinking the house sangria.