A Nod to the Vox Populi -Latin Riffs on Asian Treats

Vox has a strange installation in the front that looks like conceptual art: a glass-enclosed room containing an empty gray sofa, two empty chairs and an empty glass coffee table. It’s New York’s first cell phone lounge, where you can switch on your Nokia or Motorola and yammer away without being glowered at by other customers.

On the night I had dinner, however, cell phone users were out of luck. The glass doors of the restaurant were folded back and tables were set up where the lounge is usually located. (It will re-open in November when the weather gets chilly.) It was quieter at the front (except for the rumbling of the subway), but we were ushered past the bar to a table in the middle of a long, spare dining room painted white and softly lit with glass-brick wall lights.

Vox is very vox populi ; the Chelsea restaurant doesn’t seem to cater exclusively to any particular group–whether it’s the art, fashion or gay community–and it attracts a thoroughly cosmopolitan mix of all ages. Vox (which boasts its name in huge silver Art Deco letters outside) is relaxed and laid back, but quite noisy. The cell phone lounge is not its only eccentricity. Vox’s eclectic and quirky wine list is divided under the Latin headings “albus” (white), “rubeo” (red) and “scintillo” (sparkling). Reading it reminded me of Peter Cook’s mournful line in the comedy review Beyond the Fringe : “I could have been a judge, but I didn’t have the Latin.”

Alain Ducasse has been setting a very bad example with his $500 meals, but his influence hasn’t filtered down here yet. Vox is one of the few sophisticated restaurants left where the most expensive main course is priced under 16 bucks. Chef Chris Scarpaci’s cooking is American with Asian and pan-Latin accents (or, as he put it over the phone, “dishes that speak everyone’s language”). Mr. Scarpaci does a Latin riff on sushi, wrapping raw tuna in a tortilla instead of the traditional nori. It’s cut on the bias and filled with jicama, avocado, cucumber and served with a wasabi mayonnaise and miso glaze. A curious combination, but it worked. His salmon tartare is also Latin, with avocado, chili oil and purple potato chips. Alas, it was intensely salty from capers that should have been soaked (or soaked longer).

Salads were less successful. A hazelnut dressing on delicate organic greens was too thick. And pulled chicken, marinated with ginger and lemongrass and served with hearts of palm, peppers, cucumber, bibb lettuce and endive in a mango-honey dressing, sounded terrific, but came out dull.

Two hot skewered dishes were excellent. A trio of satays–beef, chicken and Japanese eggplant threaded on skewers with shiitake mushrooms and a cherry tomato–had been given a spicy jolt from a marinade of red Thai curry and coconut milk. They were lightly grilled and served with a peanut dipping sauce that I could have spooned up on its own. A lightly charred quail, skewered on a piece of lemongrass, had a pleasantly sweet-and-sour tang from tamarind, citrus and blood-orange. (My companion was thoroughly enjoying it when her cell phone rang. It was her young son, who had figured out the extra 646 code now required for new numbers. From that point on our meal was peppered with calls, though they went mercifully unnoticed in the clamor of the dining room. “No, you can’t watch television.… No, don’t wait up for us.… Go to sleep !”)

Perhaps to make the point that frogs’ legs taste like chicken, Vox puts them in its paella, which has perfectly cooked short-grain rice scented with just the right amount of saffron and topped with a mix of littlenecks, mussels, calamari rings, head-on shrimp and chorizo. The frogs’ legs don’t add a lot (except to elicit comment), but the paella is superior. Mr. Scarpaci casts his net far and wide to come up with tuna crusted with cracked coriander seed and served with radish-scallion salad, as well as the mashed Peruvian potatoes seasoned with wasabi and sesame, piped into a spring roll and deep-fried with a port ginger glaze. Mahi mahi comes crusted with macadamia nuts and served with caramelized pineapple and calamari black rice. It’s a wonderful dish (the rice doesn’t get its ebony sheen from squid ink; it’s simply the color of the grains, which have a deep, nutty flavor).

But not all the dishes zigzag so widely around the globe, although even a simple herb-marinated chicken with garlic mashed potatoes is jazzed up with Chinese long beans. Hanger steak is a fine, rare piece of meat, served with a potato-and-bacon cake that tastes so good “it must be bad for you,” as my companion put it. Short-ribs braised in beer and red wine arrived falling off the bone on a bed of soft, wide egg noodles called mai fun (they’re like papardelle) with ginger-glazed carrots.

By the time desserts arrived, my companions were consumed with parental guilt, thanks to the ever-more-plaintive calls on their cell phone. And there is nothing sadder than the sight of a banana split with no child to eat it, even if it’s as fancy as the one served at Vox. It consisted of a spring roll filled with caramelized bananas and served with berry purée, crushed peanuts and chocolate sauce. It’s got everything a kid wants. Kids and grown-ups would both go for the delicious moist pineapple cake with a macadamia brown-sugar crust that’s been brushed outside with condensed milk and rolled in toasted coconut. And there’s also a molten chocolate cake, and a trio of crème brûlées given an Asian twist with ginger citrus, chocolate star anise and honey green tea.

Even so, my friends bolted their desserts and dashed out for a cab. By the time they got home their son was, of course, fast asleep. I was glad the cell phone booth was closed on this night; otherwise, the management at Vox might have had to bring the parents their dinner on a tray.


* *

165 Eighth Avenue (near 18th Street)


Dress: Casual

Noise level: High

Wine list: Eclectic, eccentric,

Reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Two-course prix fixe lunch $6.95 to $8.95; dinner main courses $10.95 to $15.95

Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 4 p.m.

Dinner: Seven days 5 p.m. To midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor A Nod to the Vox Populi -Latin Riffs on Asian Treats