Intellectually Engaging Fare Satisfies the Cerebral Appetite

“Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Witness an amazing act! See the mind-bending chef assemble the most impossible, unforgettable, outrageous mix of ingredients you’ve ever seen together in one dish. Yes, name any combination at all and let the chef wrestle with the puzzle. Prune gnocchi, quail with Campari and charred grapefruit …You, sir, the man in the linen suit-let’s hear your challenge …. Tuna and foie gras! That’s a tough one, sir. But nothing is too difficult for this amazing chef!”

No, they don’t have a barker standing in the street outside Pazo urging people in. But the tuna and foie gras on the menu is a phenomenon. Two thick slabs arrived at our table tilting over the plate like rocks at Stonehenge. The tuna was seared rare and served cold; the foie gras was buttery and hot. They shared a warm Pinot Noir sauce and a small crunchy pancake of roesti potatoes laced with pancetta. My companion-the man in the linen suit-took a couple of bites. “It’s as unpleasant a combination as I can imagine,” he reported. “It isn’t a dish at all.”

According to the press release,

Pazo-which means “noble house” in Catalan-serves “a new cuisine rooted in the coastal areas of the Mediterranean.” The chef, Patricia Yeo, is from AZ in Chelsea, where I was so impressed with her Pacific Rim fusion cooking that I gave the place three stars. In the past, Ms. Yeo has worked at such stellar restaurants as Mesa Grill and

Bolo in New York and at China Moon and Hawthorne Lane in California. She also holds a master’s degree in biochemistry from Princeton University. Her co–executive chef, Pino Maffeo, worked at AZ for two years.

Pazo has taken over the premises on 57th Street and Park Avenue last occupied by Sono, a first-rate but short-lived Japanese-French restaurant. For many years before that, it was Le Chantilly, a classic French restaurant that was popular with the dowagers of Park Avenue and their pinstriped husbands, who would flock there for quiet, expensive dinners. What the dowagers will make of Pazo is anyone’s guess. The room, designed by Nancy Mah, is “kind of warm and kind of cold,” as my companion put it.

The entrance, with its carved mahogany door and vitrine display of Ali Baba urns, suggests an art gallery rather than a restaurant. The foyer, laid with Moroccan tile and hung with lamps shaped like turbans, leads past a panel of Moorish woodwork into a large dining room with red leather banquettes strewn with patterned pillows. The lighting is supposed to suggest “dappled afternoon sunshine,” but instead it’s murky in some places and harsh in others. My friend had been seated in a spot where a white light was shining down through the slatted ceiling directly onto his head. “I feel as if I’m in a Steven Spielberg movie,” he said.

“How come we have the brightest table in the place?” he asked the waiter, squinting in the glare.

“Because you are the brightest stars,” replied the waiter evenly, and set down a plate of hot roasted almonds sprinkled with sea salt, some Parmesan-flecked grissini and assorted olives. A busboy brought over a basket of rolls that included great little brioche. I lifted the small silver dome from the butter dish and helped myself to the spread, which was strangely soft. It tasted like boursin, but was actually a mixture of butter, sour cream and roasted garlic.

The menu headings caught us off-guard: “Entrants Freds,” “Carns i Avirams,” “Mar i Muntanya.” No, they’re not Esperanto, or a mixture of Turkish and Basque, but rather Catalan. The names of many of the dishes read as though they’d been translated for tourists by someone with an unreliable dictionary, or created by Salvador Dalí for one of his Surrealist dinners. From “Entrants Freds” I chose that famous Catalan specialty, arugula salad with plums, shaved foie gras and truffled cheese. (“Shaved” foie gras? Dalí would have liked the idea.) The combination wasn’t as bad as it sounds, if a little busy. Intellectually engaging? Yes. Do I ever want to have it again? No.

The fritto misto was more straightforward, a bland but pleasant assortment of lobster, sweet corn beignet and stuffed baby artichokes. The house-cured salmon, dotted with caviar and horseradish crème fraîche, was salty, but I liked its flavor and dense texture. One night, after I was recognized, the kitchen sent out small cups of a sublime soup made with tomato, fennel and lentils that had a warm, spicy kick to it. That, I would like to have again.

When Ms. Yeo hits the mark, as she does, for example, with the pancetta-wrapped monkfish and the roasted cod (which was moist inside a golden crust and came with sun-dried tomato pesto and squid cut like strands of pasta), her food is wonderful. But when she tries too hard to be clever, she goes over the top. For example, the mussel soufflé that came with the monkfish: It was bizarre, unpleasantly mushy and wet. Or the prune gnocchi that came with the duck-it sounded like something on a spa diet that you’d have with ginger tea. It didn’t have much taste and didn’t do anything for the perfectly ordinary honey-roasted duck breast, though it was perked up with some roasted fresh plums.

Ms. Yeo buys the best and freshest ingredients, and then she does the oddest things with them. Two squishy little unidentifiable patties floating on a tomato sauce were made with “creamy lentil ravioli” and cotechino. Blindfolded, I’d never have guessed what I was eating. The cotechino is made in-house; I’d like to have tasted it plain. Charred grapefruit overwhelmed a perfectly decent grilled quail that’s served with a Campari caramel glaze (I’d rather have had the quail Ms. Yeo served at AZ-a triumph-which was prepared with roasted pineapple and a ginger-lacquered glaze).

Her riff on paella doesn’t work at all. The duck confit, head-on shrimp and tiny clams that make up the dish are all excellent. But why do away with the short-grain paella rice and use basmati rice instead (which is probably why they stopped calling it “paella” on the menu and changed the name to “pilaf”)? Short-grain rice absorbs all the juices, turns creamy and gets a lovely crust in the oven. It’s the best part.

And what do you drink with this food? Pazo has an intriguing, well-thought-out wine list, with many unusual choices from the Mediterranean at reasonable prices. The sommelier is extremely helpful, too. Les Terrasses ’99 for $40, a full-bodied red, is first-rate.

Desserts include a sugary Turkish coffee soufflé, a tasteless farina cake with quince and pear, and an awful chocolate zabaglione. The Catalan cream with beignets, on the other hand, was fine, although I’ve had better.

I’m sure there’s a great meal to be had at Pazo. But right now, the cooking here is still too much of a solipsistic chef’s experiments with ingredients. The food is intellectually challenging, all right. But is it food you want to eat?

Intellectually Engaging Fare Satisfies the Cerebral Appetite