On a recent evening at Scarabée, as I sat over a plate of grilled baby octopus, black-olive bruschetta and a lemony escabèche of fennel and peppers served with a curried balsamic vinaigrette, I thought of Elizabeth David. Her Mediterranean Food , first published in Britain nearly 50 years ago (and still in print), changed forever the way my parents’ generation thought about cooking. It was as though everything before then had been in black and white; now it was in color. And even today, a half-century later, anyone truly interested in food has a well-thumbed and spotted copy of that book on the kitchen shelf (along with David’s works on French and Italian cooking, and those, of course, of Julia Child).
In Mediterranean Food , David writes of “the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs and limes, the great heaps of shiny fish, silver, vermillion or tiger-striped … endless varieties of currants and raisins, figs from Smyrna on long strings, dates, almonds, pistachios and pine kernel nuts, dried melon seeds and sheets of apricot paste …” And when you first look at the menu at Scarabée you wonder if a stroll through one of those markets had completely robbed the chef of his senses. From the descriptions of his dishes, every exotic ingredient seems to have been thrown pell-mell into the pot. Pomegranate-glazed salmon with curried couscous, hyssop and citrus tahini vinaigrette? Salmon tartare napoleon with cucumber and mango and avocado and melon “jus”? What, you wonder, could he be thinking? And yet when you taste the food at Scarabée, which calls itself contemporary French with hints of the Mediterranean, it is not overwrought at all. It is delicious.
The restaurant, named after the sacred turquoise beetle in Egyptian mythology and the symbol of good luck, is rather cramped and noisy, but also attractive and polished. Down one side the wall is painted with thick horizontal blue and beige stripes. There are circular booths, bare black tabletops, large mirrors and chandeliers topped with small white conical shades that cast a low, flattering light. The owner is an Egyptian, Karim El Sherif, who was general manager at restaurant Daniel and before that maître d’ at Le Bernardin. Chef Joseph Fortunato was at Picholine and most recently at Drew Nieporent’s Layla in TriBeCa, which serves superior Middle Eastern food. (It also has a belly dancer from time to time, who can be cheerfully ogled from the street through the picture windows.)
The breads are as good as those at Layla, beginning with the black olive focaccia and wonderful crusty rolls, and the service is friendly and knowledgable. I was also impressed by the unusual wines on the list, which is reasonably priced. But when you order here for the first time, you do it with a certain amount of trepidation. I began one evening with a salad that sounded like overkill: poached pear, endive, crumbled gorgonzola and duck confit in a spiced walnut dressing. I thought the duck and the gorgonzola would cancel each other out, but amazingly, it worked, the dressing bringing the whole thing together. Mr. Fortunato is daring with his use of spices and the way he balances sweet with tart. Escoffier’s ” Faites simple ” is not in his lexicon. The asparagus was good, too, with its giddying mix of chanterelles, sweet corn and pancetta, aged goat cheese and vinaigrette flavored with white truffles. One of our favorite dishes was a crepe stuffed with a delicate brandade of cod and served with a bouillon made with tomato and basil, the acidity of the tomato perfect as a foil for the creaminess of the cod. I tried the octopus a couple of times; once it was rather tough, but the combination with fennel, crisp black-olive bruschetta and curried balsamic vinaigrette worked beautifully. I also loved the napoleon of salmon tartare and the juicy sea scallops with fingerling potatoes and frisée.
There are weekly specials, including rabbit with green lentils, couscous, paella and risotto, given a contemporary twist such as scallops and cippollini onions with the saffron risotto. The trio of lamb-a chop, a sausage and a cinnamon-scented boned shank, served with a heap of garlic mashed potatoes, onion confit and cranberry relish-is one of Mr. Fortunato’s best dishes. But the truffle-marinated squab is good, too, with baby pumpkin stuffed with wild mushrooms and Israeli couscous, and so is the herb-crusted halibut with artichokes.
Dalia Jurgensen’s desserts are no letdown. Warm pear tarte Tatin is updated with fromage blanc ice cream, walnut brittle and cranberry compote. A pyramid of white and dark chocolate mousse is served inside a crunchy halvah crust with blackberry sauce. Frozen lemon verbena parfait is filled with pomegranata. How did she get such intense flavor from that chilled mango
Before she died, Elizabeth David had hoped to write an introduction to a third revised edition of Mediterranean Food . In her second, she wrote: “In these regions there will always be new discoveries to be made; new doors opening, new impressions to communicate.” Scarabée, on a rather dull midtown block, has certainly enlivened the neighborhood, and Ms. David would very much have enjoyed it.
230 East 51st Street
Noise level: Quite high
Wine list: Interesting, fairly priced and well chosen
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $14 to $18, dinner $18 to $28
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 P.M.