Dining With Moira Hodgson

Amuse Yourself:

Eat Cheap or Put on the Dog

Let me make it clear from the start: I like this restaurant very much, but I can’t stand the name. The dreaded French term amuse-gueule (or amuse-bouche , depending how genteel you are) has now become part of our lexicon. “Here is an ‘amu- say ‘ from the chef,” says your waiter, cheerfully mispronouncing the word as he sets down a plate with something very small in the middle of it. “Enjoy!” And you can bet the price of your dinner that if you ask him for a pepper mill or the wine list, he’ll reply, “No problem!”

But even though I have a problem with its name, I like the concept behind this restaurant. It’s been through quite a few changes since it first opened with the equally discouraging nomenclature Tonic, which made me think of Fernet-Branca and hangovers. Despite continually good reviews, owners Steve Tzolis and Nicola Kotsoni never could seem to settle down. Now they’ve gone into partnership with Gerry Hayden-formerly the chef at Aureole-and given the place yet another makeover.

Mr. Hayden has put together what he calls a “deconstructed” menu, which consists of small plates that encourage tasting and sharing. The menu itself is arranged by prices. It looks like a calendar and reads across the page instead of up and down, beginning with soup and vegetables at $5, and progressing to $18 for a plate of meatballs or a butter-poached lobster. There is also a selection of large plates-steak, braised short ribs, roast chicken-priced from $21 to $30. You can eat here very cheaply or, as they say, you can put on the dog.

Order the mixed grill ($25) and, instead of great chunks of meat on a cutting board, you get an elegant Moroccan-inspired presentation. A heap of tiny bias-cut merguez conceals a tender lacquered squab breast and a glazed chicken leg underneath; on the side is a small bowl of curried Israeli couscous tossed with shredded braised lamb. The plate of paella, which contains chicken, sausage, lobster and clams, is rimmed with mussels. The seasonings are delicate, and the rice-the most important part-is perfect: each grain firm yet creamy. It’s just the right portion and you can eat the lot.

But it wasn’t only the interesting menu and the good things I’d heard about the food that drew me here recently. Some English designer friends were in town, and I wanted to show them the bar, which was built by Anheuser-Busch at the turn of the century-a magnificent example of old New York, and one of the few saloons to have survived Prohibition intact. (Indeed, the long mahogany bar, dark wood paneling and beveled mirrors dated back at least 100 years.)

When I walked into Amuse, however, I found myself in a lounge. It was a perfectly nice lounge-with leatherette banquettes, stools and a large transparent flower painting-but I could have been anywhere. The only vestiges of the old saloon were the mosaic tile floor and the bar itself, where, instead of hooch, the drinks being offered had names like Singing Monkey and Red Tide.

“What happened?” I asked the maitre d’hôtel.

“We opened it up.”

And took away its character. Well, at least the lighting was good.

“Lighting is everything,” commented one of my friends as we entered the dining room, which is also beautifully lit. The room is like a theater set: There’s a platform at one end, and tables are lined up on top, looking as if they’re ready to receive the guests of the Last Supper. The bare walls in the main dining area are bathed in a soft pink light, and long plain mirrors run the length of striped banquettes.

You can jump all over the world with this menu. For $10, you can get a lovely tart filled with fresh chanterelles and topped with feta and baked tomato. For $5, there’s a small platter of tiny roasted Brussels sprouts served with a parmesan crisp and sprinkled with sage and toasted walnuts. It was a revelation to my friends, who had grown up in England and were used to Brussels sprouts cooked until they were gray and soggy. A spicy salad of green papaya tossed with lime, cilantro and peanuts was pleasantly tart and crunchy. A little of it went a long way-this was certainly a dish for sharing.

So was the sashimi of tuna, which was mixed with soba noodles and flavored with Chinese parsley essence (another word for coriander) and a spicy soy-lime dressing. Sashimi of fluke went global, garnished with red grapefruit segments, fresh ginger crackling and slivers of piquillo pepper. I liked it, though I found the grapefruit overwhelming.

I love sea salt, but there was too much on the sliced strip steak, which was rare and juicy, served with garlic baby spinach and a red wine thyme reduction. The short ribs were wonderful, topped with two large seared sea scallops and accompanied by honey-glazed daikon and extremely spicy mustard greens.

Desserts are priced at $5 and, while they all look great, they vary in taste. Crème brûlée is served in a deep dish under an orange-lavender froth, but the vein of caramel running through it made it too sweet for me. Chocolate Napoleon consisted of a tough, bitter chocolate pastry layered with a bland, bitter chocolate filling. Bourbon bread pudding was on the dull side, but the caramelized pear toffee cake-dark, moist and treacly-was wonderful, with sour-cream ice cream and spiced almonds. I can still taste it.

The lounge was packed when we left at around 11 p.m. Amuse is a cool, young restaurant, serving good food for every budget.

Dining With Moira Hodgson