Dining out with Moira Hodgson

DiSpirito Empire:

Still Small, Still Shining

When Rocco DiSpirito burst upon the scene five years ago with Union Pacific, his food dazzled New Yorkers. His style of French-Asian cooking was startlingly original, with juxtapositions of textures and tastes that were totally unexpected. Who’d ever thought of matching bay scallops with uni and mustard oil? Or skate with lime pickle?

It didn’t take long for Mr. DiSpirito to join the burgeoning ranks of celebrity chefs with a series on the Food Network, guest appearances on morning talk shows, cookbooks, a boldface name in the party pages and, undoubtedly, a great many frequent-flyer miles. But unlike Mario, Alain, Jean-Georges or Daniel, Rocco still has only one restaurant.

When you walk into Union Pacific in Gramercy, you’re greeted by a sparkling waterfall that at first appears to be an optical illusion, tiny twinkling droplets falling noiselessly into a dark pool. Steel girders span the ceiling, which is curved like a hangar, and iron cutouts shaped like leaves climb across the red walls of the dining room. The blurry outline of cooks moving about the kitchen is visible through a window of translucent glass. The color scheme is brown and beige, with round booths and banquettes embroidered with tiny frogs; tables are set with Frette linen and candles in white crystal balls. The restaurant, which seats 125 people, is on two floors (upstairs is Siberia), and at night it’s dimly lit and feels serene. At lunchtime, perhaps to indicate a more businesslike mood, it’s much too bright. You don’t come here to read manuscripts.

At the next table one night, a deeply serious young couple carefully dissected and tasted everything on each other’s plate. Aside from the green cocktail she was drinking, they drank nothing but water-perhaps because they had checked out the prices on the wine list. It’s a wonderful list, but extremely expensive. I had to read it down the right-hand side, where the prices are, and stop when I came to a number I could afford-not the most amusing way to choose a bottle of wine. But you can go another route: Mr. DiSpirito has paired every dish with a wine sold by the glass (he likens himself to a producer who arranges tracks of music, only he looks for arrangements of fruit, acid and sweetness that balance a particular dish). The wines chosen for the pairings are unusual and interesting, with Mr. DiSpirito favoring German and Austrian selections, and range in price from $9 to $18.

Mr. DiSpirito’s philosophy is to balance four flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. You get the picture right away when a “gift from the kitchen” arrives: It’s a tiny square of hot smoked salmon and pineapple terrine that takes you through all four taste sensations.

He also likes to select a food that Americans are familiar with, like peas, and combine it with something not so familiar, such as offal. He serves crunchy fried sweetbreads (knowing that Americans will eat anything if it’s fried), setting them afloat on a foamy green-pea broth laced with lardons. The basil glaze on the petits pois adds a refreshing touch of anise. I wonder how many people who order one of his signature dishes-halibut with pork and shallot “cracklin'”-know they’re getting pig’s feet? The halibut is slow-cooked in goose fat, so it’s moist, and comes on a bed of Swiss chard surrounded by a confiture of young ginger cooked in a spiced Riesling and sugar syrup, mixed with crispy shallots and crunchy pieces of jellied pig’s feet. It’s wonderful with the fish, adding a sharp, rich taste and resilient texture.

Mr. DiSpirito is also extremely inventive with fruits, matching them with unexpected ingredients. He forgoes the classic raw tuna garnishes in favor of a tartare made with slabs of the raw fish coated in a tart mango, pineapple and yuzu-juice vinaigrette. A dash of fish sauce adds the right note of saltiness, balanced with a little cayenne for heat. Sliced fennel, cucumber and peppers tossed together add spice and crunch.

Fruit also plays a supporting role with the calamari-not something you’d expect (unless you count olives as a fruit). Slices of calamari are braised until tender in coconut milk and served cold in a delicate pale-yellow curry sauce with banana and apple, with diced green papaya and sticky rice. The dish is light and subtle, a lovely balance of flavor, though a tad underseasoned. Marvelous soft-shell crabs with a hot-and-sour XO sauce come with grapefruit.

The foie gras looks like a dessert. It’s cut into a disk, surrounded by garnet-colored squiggles of strawberry sauce and topped with fraises des bois and green apricot kernels that look like large, peeled fava beans. The foie gras tastes buttery-too buttery, perhaps, against the sweetness of fruit, which rather overwhelms it (when I spread this mixture on toast, I couldn’t help thinking of butter and jam), but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

The hanger steak is great, marinated for several days in a citrus sauce and served with a sweet-and-sour sauce made from caramel and sherry vinegar that renders it remarkably tender. It comes with grilled honshimeji (Japanese cluster mushrooms) sprinkled with garlic chips that add a briny note. The secret ingredients that give the final touch to the steak are bottarga (dried tuna roe) and a sweet Chinese mustard.

My husband can eat a whole jar of lime pickle at one sitting, and I suspect Mr. DiSpirito could probably do the same. He clearly loves this Indian relish (I still remember his sardines with lime pickle and watercress) and is now serving it with skate. Brown butter is the only thing his version has in common with the French bistro dish: The skate sails onto the table looking like the hull of a wooden ship (it’s been dredged in masa harina and lightly browned), and the lime pickle, mixed with Swiss chard, adds an exciting tart taste.

Forget the perfunctory cheese selection and go straight to dessert. Mr. DiSpirito’s fallen molten chocolate cake is as divine as ever, but it’s no longer on the menu. He says he got bored with it, so now he just gives it away. A lovely summery carpaccio of mango and papaya is topped with a fruity pineapple sherbet. The banana tart comes in a flaky pastry topped with caramelized bananas on an unctuous custard. The chocolate hazelnut parfait with milk chocolate cream and Rice Krispies clusters makes you feel like a child again.

Will Mr. DiSpirito take the next obvious step in celebrity chefdom by expanding his restaurant empire? He is reticent about his future plans. “I don’t have anything to announce with regard to a new restaurant,” he said over the phone, “but I promise, you will be the first to know when I do.” If it’s as good as this one, I can’t wait. Dining out with Moira Hodgson