“Have you read today’s New York Times ?” asked D., one of the friends I was to meet for dinner at Cena that night, when he called to confirm the hour. “There’s an article on Isabel Allende that has made me hate food.”
This was hardly the attitude I’d hoped for. The previous week, I had had a wonderful dinner at Cena and I was looking forward to a treat.
I hung up and read the piece, an interview with the Chilean novelist by Molly O’Neill. In her latest book, a memoir, Ms. Allende “opens the door of Aphrodite’s Pantry. There, an almond is not a nut, but a myth-drenched symbol of femininity. And black pepper is not merely a seasoning, but an aliment that can cheer widows and aid the impotent.” Ms. Allende dreams of slathering a handsome man with guacamole and tucking him into a corn tortilla. Standing at the stove, “her snug burgundy sweater traced the rise of her ribs as she inhaled the scent from a simmering pot of husky mushroom soup.” She cooks some “quivering” omelettes, “one half moon of tenderness after the other,” which made her flush “as steam beaded on them like sweat …”
With these words still ringing in my head, I made my way to Cena, a new restaurant in the Flatiron district where three friends were already waiting. They had all read the piece about Isabel Allende.
“My favorite line was, ‘Erotic is using a feather, pornography is when you use the whole bird,'” said one, adding that he felt like having chicken but there wasn’t any on the menu.
There was duck breast, however, with caramelized kumquats and licorice-infused duck jus, a dish that would surely bring a flush to Ms. Allende’s cheeks.
There was also venison with spruce tips, greens that had been hand-picked, buttons of milkweed, pressed raspberries … What more could you ask for?
But apart from the orchids in the men’s room, Cena’s décor is surprisingly low-key as a setting for a trip into the realm of the senses. The look is pared down and minimalist, all stainless steel, blond wood and gray tones, with a large bar in the front and a long, curving bench dividing a cafe area from the dining room, which is dominated by giant stainless steel columns topped with opaque, lighted glass panels. Depending on where you sit, when the room is full it can be hard to hear across the table.
Cena (the name is a derivation from the Greek xenia , which means hospitality; it’s also Italian for “dinner”) is owned by Thalia and Stephen Loffredo, proprietors of Zoë in SoHo, and they have brought in a chef, Normand Laprise, who has a highly successful restaurant in Montreal called Toque. He is an eccentric and exciting cook, using unusual ingredients in complex and unexpected combinations. The menu sounds so interesting you can’t wait to try every dish on it.
The seared foie gras, a veritable “half moon of tenderness,” was garnished with a surprising mixture of ingredients: balsamic glazed plums, baby corn, artichokes à la grecque, shallots and pumpkin seed oil. Amazingly, they all went together perfectly. Also cleverly conceived was a play on Vietnamese summer rolls: two small sections served in an oversize white bowl, stuffed with crab, avocado and grilled peppers, in a broth flavored with yellow pepper juice, lemongrass and mint.
I never pass up fried oysters if I can help it, and here they were served in their shells on crunchy jicama rémoulade with spicy pineapple confiture and pea shoots. Crisp sweetbreads came with white asparagus, “pressed” raspberries and buttons of milkweed (a vegetable I’d never had before that looks like broccoli rabe but has a sweet, delicate taste). A disk of goat cheese floated on a scarlet pool of beet-apple juice, flavored with garlic oil and tatsoi. A delicate cauliflower soup was laced with morels and shavings of foie gras.
Every dish was as much a pleasure to look at as to eat. Lobster risotto was made with arborio rice cooked with sorrel, sun-dried tomatoes, baby yellow beets and greens and packed into the lobster shell, which sat upright in the bowl holding a bouquet of greens. Pieces of lobster cooked tempura-style were arranged around the shell. Scallops and giant gnocchi stuffed with wild mushrooms looked like the pillars of Stonehenge, surrounded by leaves of bok choy and roasted baby fennel.
Mr. Laprise is no less a marvel at cooking meat. His venison, which he brings in from Canada (with Canadian spruce tips scenting the pan juices), was superb; as was the contrefilet of beef, which was tender enough to cut with a spoon and served with green lentils mixed with corn, batons of salsify and topped with crispy pieces of purple mountain spinach. Lamb was prepared two ways: juicy grilled chops or the shoulder braised with herbs and wild mushrooms, accompanied by a creamy gratinée of flageolets.
By the time the waiter appeared to suggest a cheese course, D.–who had said the article on Ms. Allende had made him hate food–had not only consumed every ounce of his roast venison but had tasted everyone else’s dishes, too.
“We must have cheese!” he said excitedly. (Perhaps he was thinking of Ms. Allende on the subject of Roquefort, described as “too ripe and pungent not to be an aphrodisiac.” I decided not to bring it up.)
After the cheeses, which were ripe and pungent indeed, we went on to a selection of pastry chef Sara Spearin’s terrific desserts. Pot à la crème with blackberry charlotte and blackberries in aspic decorated with a spun sugar ladder, fig tart with raspberry sorbet, chocolate pistachio lemon cake …
“Do you still hate food?” I asked D. He helped himself to a chocolate petit four without deigning to reply.
Correction: I reported erroneously that Honmura An, reviewed here in the issue dated July 13, serves sushi. It doesn’t, but it does serve sashimi.
* * *
12 East 22nd Street
12 East 22nd Street
Noise level: Can be very high
Wine list: Well chosen, from the United States, France, Australia and New Zealand
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Cafe $9 to $18, dining room $21 to $31, tasting menu $49 to $55
Cafe: Monday to Friday 11:30 A.M. to 11:30 P.M., Saturday and Sunday 5:30 to 11:30 P.M.
Dining room: Monday to Friday 5:30 to 10:30 P.M., Saturday and Sunday to 11:30 P.M.
* * Very good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No star: Poor