What to do when the city has zoned your dining space as a garden? Put up a tent. Hence the loopy-sounding name of this new Nolita restaurant, where the ceiling is a removable canvas roof, suavely hung with copper-colored silk.
InTent is the first downtown venture of pastry wizard François Payard, whose patisserie, Payard Bistro, caters to a markedly more conservative clientele on the Upper East Side. On Mott Street, where T-shirts and Reeboks replace striped dress shirts and gold-buckled loafers, the cuisine is Mediterranean, with a strong Moroccan accent. Executive chef Craig Freeman, who worked at Le Cirque 2000, has created an inexpensive menu (main courses from $16 to $25) using North African ingredients such as couscous, harissa, hummus, eggplant and olives.
At the entrance of the restaurant is a small wine bar with a glass wall looking onto the street. Because it’s by a school and a church, InTent is allowed to serve only wine and beer. The wine list of around 50 bottles is strong on Mediterranean vineyards and reasonably priced, with many choices in the $30 to $40 range (and nothing over $98). It’s divided under cutesy headings such as “big, comfortable and juicy” (juicy?) or “bone dry, zingy and frivolous.” The house cocktails are made with port.
When your table is ready, the hostess leads you down a narrow hallway, past an open kitchen framed in Moorish tiles and into a spacious rectangular dining room. Designed by Xavier Delagrange, it’s decorated in earth tones, with a long, communal table in the center, a waterfall trickling over pebbles at the far end, and beige walls hung with gold platters and tilted mirrors. Comfortable leather banquettes line the sides of the room, but you have to sit way back to avoid the harsh pinpoints of light that beam directly onto the wooden tables, rendering the candles redundant. (Shouldn’t people who light restaurants sit at every table to see how it feels?)
If you’re unlucky, you may find yourself seated not in the tent, but at a table in the cramped wine bar in the front of the restaurant. Eating here was a hapless experience for four of us one evening: hot and noisy, and all the more irritating since I had reserved well in advance.
Too bad, because much of the food at InTent was very good, beginning with the crusty bread and the dips—caper pesto, hummus and eggplant purée—that arrive when you sit down. Some of the simplest-sounding dishes were exceptional, such as a lemony Israeli couscous tossed with tomato, cucumber, onion and parsley oil, and the house-cured salmon, surrounded by a sprightly ceviche of fine-diced capers, onions and tomatoes, served with an herb salad. A warm crab napoleon was made with a creamy mix of crab, diced celery and apple layered over thin potato chips and set in a ring of saffron-and-curry-flavored sauce. It was one of the best dishes on the menu. Don’t bother with the bland eggplant and goat-cheese tart covered with strips of soggy zucchini.
One of the oddest concoctions was the monkfish mousse, which was served in a glass like a sundae. It looked like the sort of dessert you’d see in a 1950’s diner display case. “I like the fact that it has a dessert look but a really fishy taste,” commented one of my friends dryly after a mouthful. “Needs ice and more vodka,” said another. When you dug your spoon down through all the cream, however, you came upon a layer of tomato gelatin that perked the whole thing up. But I don’t think I’ll try this dish again.
Salt cod carpaccio ($10) was also strange. The fish was chalk-white, with a surprisingly soft texture—you expect carpaccio to be somewhat chewy. But it was rimmed with tapenade and sprinkled with diced black olive that made a pleasant contrast, and I ended up quite liking it.
In the line of duty, dear reader, I ordered the turkey osso buco. Turkey once a year is more than enough for me. But tender leg meat arrived in a rich, dark sauce made with harissa and tomatoes, spiced garbanzos and broccoli rabe (for just $19). This was the way to go! (Since my last visit, it went off the menu, indefinitely it seems, due to lack of demand.) I also liked the juicy grilled diver scallops in an orange broth laced with clams and chunks of chorizo, served with mashed potatoes mixed with brandade. A sautéed filet of daurade was moist inside its crisp wrapping of bric dough, accompanied by crushed potatoes, spicy Mediterranean vegetables and tomato oil.
Not surprisingly, the desserts by Payard’s pastry chef, Eric Estrella, were outstanding. There are local strawberries with creamy Greek yogurt and candied fennel. And there are sweet, red-wine-poached Mejdool dates served on a disc of salty feta cheesecake with a scoop of white pepper ice cream. Figs three ways—brûlée, in a sticky caramel pudding, and in the port-wine-poached fig ice cream—were also terrific. Earlier in the summer, I had sweet cooked apricots on honey brioche with saffron ice cream. You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted this one.
InTent is ambitious and creative. And the price is right (although just a few years ago in this neighborhood, you would never have thought that $120 for a three-course dinner for two and a bottle of wine was a bargain). When the food hits the mark, it is delightful.