Mondrian’s Foy Comes Back, His Creative Flair Intact

If I’d listened to the Weather Channel, I would never have made it to EQ the other night. Temperatures were in the 90’s and a major thunderstorm–possibly even a tornado–was expected. “Stay away from windows and remain indoors until 10 P.M.,” we were told. But restaurant critics are like hurricane chasers, diving recklessly into the eye of the storm. So, heedless of the warning, I sallied forth heroically just before 8 o’clock, armed with knife, fork, notebook and anemometer, into the West Village, which was shrouded in black.

I got to the restaurant just in time, for we could hear the storm beginning to rage outside as the hostess showed us to our table. And there (while the rest of the city, if the Weather Channel has any clout at all, presumably remained indoors and stayed away from windows), we sat nibbling on crusty rolls and sipping glasses of wine, trying to decide whether to begin with the lobster and black truffles or the foie gras.

EQ is a small, intimate restaurant, but it also feels curiously like the first-class dining room of a ship like the QE2 , scaled way down, of course, since it only seats 40. A pocket-sized bar at the entrance is separated by a wall from the dining room beyond. The latter is quiet and restrained, done in beige, green and brown, with soft recessed lighting, a low ceiling and a mirror along one wall. The waiters, who are efficient and friendly without being obtrusive, are dressed in black with black ties, like characters out of Dr. No . It all feels a bit 60’s.

The chef and owner of EQ (named for partner Estelle Quinones) is Dennis Foy, who 10 years ago opened Mondrian, an ambitious restaurant in the former Playboy Club on East 59th Street (Mondrian had once lived upstairs). It closed when expenses proved too high. Now Mr. Foy has returned on a smaller scale, but the food is every bit as exciting as it was in his former restaurant, with intense, clear flavors and clever juxtapositions of ingredients. He uses reduced essences and vegetable “waters” instead of cream or butter. As my companions looked over the menu, they were bemused by the idea of the “arugula water” and “corn water” that came with the sautéed and roasted fish. “Sounds like my wife,” said one of them. “When she cooks, she’s always saying, ‘I should have saved the water.'”

“Steamed cockles, homemade noodles, red grapefruit,” read one of my friends from the menu. “Grapefruit and noodles! I don’t think so, no matter what the color of the grapefruit.”

But I had to try this dish, which turned out to be a marvelous combination–the tartness of the grapefruit and the briny cockles (they look like doll’s clams) complementing each other perfectly on the bed of noodles. Mr. Foy’s preparation of foie gras was no less startling in concept (and no less delicious), a creamy slab that was sautéed and served pink with crisp cabbage, surrounded by a scarlet pool of red bell-pepper sauce.

In order not to be outdone by the esoteric choices made by others at our table, one of my friends who doesn’t like lobster much decided to see if Mr. Foy’s way of cooking it might change his mind. He had grown up in Cape Elizabeth, Me., next door to Bette Davis’ daughter. “One evening, I sat next to Bette Davis at dinner and after a while she glared at me and said, ‘What’s the matter, little boy? Don’t you like lobster?'”

I, too, can live without lobster, although I love it grilled at the beach, but we all agreed that Mr. Foy’s salad was exceptional, a little salty perhaps, but made with pieces of lobster that were tender, tossed with haricots verts and black truffles. A tian (a shallow, earthenware casserole) of crabmeat, made with thick, fresh chunks scented with thyme and sautéed, was also excellent. I liked the crab better than the “inside out” sashimi salad, which consisted of a large, thin slice of tuna, in a surprising reversal of roles, wrapped around greens instead of being topped with them. The greens, however, were rather bland; as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, no there was there. But the corn chowder (not the usual thing that looks as though it came out of a Green Giant can) was a heavenly concoction, all frothed up like zabaglione, laced with mushrooms and painted with a thread of mushroom essence.

The grilled and sautéed fish at EQ (with their flavored waters) are superb. Roast loin of lamb was, too, with chanterelles, almonds and a creamy gratin of potatoes, and so was the flavorful aged ribeye with caramelized asparagus and shallot confit. One of my favorites was the grilled saddle of rabbit, cut in thick slices topped with summer truffle and spring onions (an excellent red wine with any of these is a Domaine Drouhin pinot noir from Oregon).

When the waiter brought over the cheese platter, we could not resist tasting six perfectly ripe cheeses. Then we pressed on to desserts, which included a dark chocolate soufflé with banana sorbet, a cherry clafoutis with lemon verbena ice cream, a raspberry tart and a delicious vanilla crème brûlée under a thin sugar crust.

With first courses priced from $8 to $18, main courses from $22 to $28, plus $12 for the cheese course and $8 for dessert, EQ is hardly your casual Village bistro around the corner. The bill adds up fast–but with food this good, it’s worth the price.

Restaurant EQ

* * 1/2

267 West Fourth Street,

corner of Perry Street

414-1961

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Short but good and well priced

Credit cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa

Price range: Main courses $22 to $28

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

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Mondrian’s Foy Comes Back, His Creative Flair Intact