New York City – New Year’s Day dawned bright and clear, but cold, and we decided that since the Museum of Modern Art was open, we’d head that way for a few hours of “culture.” MoMA, as it is generally known in these parts was recently completely renovated, revamped, and repriced – there were cries of outrage when they announced the new $20 admission price (however, there is free admission on Friday evenings). Nonetheless, the museum draws crowds as big as ever. We cheated. Frank’s company is a corporate sponsor of the museum, so we entered sans payment. I don’t know a lot about modern art. Truthfully, I don’t know a lot about art period. Frank, however, is a storehouse of both knowledge and commentary on the subject, so it was fascinating to get a chance to hear stories about some of the artists and works. Here, he critiques Paul Cézanne’s Melting Snow, actually, one of my favorite pieces in the entire museum. Some interesting special exhibits – an entire floor showing off modern design of safety equipment and related objects, and Pixar’s 20 year retrospective. I do wonder at what point a piece is no longer “modern,” as the museum showcases works that go back to the 1800s…
My friend John had an actual day off, a rarity, I suppose being both a Sunday and a holiday helped. We decided to try out a new Greek restaurant he’d been hearing murmurs about. So in the evening we headed off to Ònera, 222 West 79th Street, just off Broadway, for “Greek Inspired Cuisine.” The place is as cute as a button, looking and feeling a little like someone’s converted living room in a small but stately manor up on say, the New England coast. Simple, straightforward, and tasteful. The staff are friendly, though perhaps a trifle overly casual, at moments calling out to each other or to another table over the top of the one that they’re at. [Closed.]
We were found out relatively early in the meal as restaurant-folk, and began to receive a bit of extra attention from the kitchen. That can be a mixed blessing, and in this case it was. John, ever the master of the politic, managed to find appropriate responses to questions about the food… “well, we didn’t leave any on the plate…” springs to mind. I really wanted to like the place, they’re clearly trying. The kitchen in particular is trying, in fact, I’d say, trying too hard. I’m all for experimentation, I’m all for trying new things. I do it all the time. I have to wonder sometimes though with some of these “new” experimenting chefs if they actually sit down and taste what they’ve created – especially if they are presenting more than one item at a time – to see if everything works together. Often, I think not, but rather they convince themselves in advance that the idea that has sprung into their head must be right, and they allow nothing to dislodge that conviction. Still, Ònera has gotten some decent press, so someone else must be enjoying these creations.
We decided to start with the meze sampling; five takes on carpaccio that were presented beautifully. Individually, each was interesting, though with minor faults, mostly in a seeming need to adorn the dishes with just one too many ingredients to allow it to harmonize. As a whole, the fault lies mostly in the sameness of the pool of the same olive oil and the topping of slightly too many salt crystals. Both olive oil and salt are available in a wide variety of styles – change it up some. The five plates were: yellowtail topped with what I believe was an artichoke puree and chopped black olives – the yellowtail bordering on a trifle too old for carpaccio (okay, it’s Sunday, New Year’s Day, but still…), and the flavor hidden anyway by the intensity of the other ingredients; scallops topped with a tangy yogurt and fennel sauce that was actually pretty decent; sea urchin roe atop beets with a puree of something unidentifiable, and piled with bitter radish sprouts, all of it clashing; veal with some sort of creamy dressing made with bottarga (dried mullet roe) that seemed to be a take on a vitello tonnato but not quite, and all sort of limp and flavorless; and lamb with crumbled cheese that was the most interesting of the lot. Truthfully, the little taste from the kitchen that was a “gift” to us of marlin carpaccio with a simple chopped nut and herb topping (and without the pool of olive oil) was the best thing offered!
Having been eating a lot recently, I decided on just an appetizer for my main course, and the chilled roasted octopus with sweet noumboulo salami (a smoked salami from Corfu, made with wine and spices), granny smith apples, and tart anchovy vinaigrette had an intriguing sound to it. I love octopus, and Greek restaurants often do it well. I was able to visually identify the various elements listed above. Gustatorily, they didn’t stand a chance as the dish was liberally slathered with a creamy paste of raw garlic so strong that even the anchovies took a backseat. The dish was also, once again, sitting in a pool of the very same olive oil as the meze dishes.
John wanted to try their much talked about goat moussaka, but unfortunately (or not?) the chef had “not been happy with the goat that came in today” (sorry, been in the business too long, but I don’t buy that any restaurant supplier delivered a goat on New Year’s Day, Sunday…). It’s clearly a popular dish as we heard several other tables request it and get the same response. He decided to leave the choice up to our waiter, and in the end received a plate of three perfectly cooked slices of rare tuna, crusted with “mediterranean spices,” that, while reasonably good, had little resemblance to anything Greek. In truth, we both thought the spices made the dish taste Indian, it was almost as if the tuna was coated in curry. It was served with a shotglass of warm tomato consommé, the purpose of which remains a mystery, having little if anything to do with the rest of the dish.
Disappointed, and not really all that hungry anyway, we agreed to sample a plate of the “deconstructed bakhlava.” All I can say is, reconstruct it. The scoop of cinnamon ice cream was nice. The puff pastry shell with whipped cream, a sprinkling of nuts, and an anemic honey syrup was cute, but basically turned a rich, delicious dessert into something light and fluffy.
The winelist is mostly Greek, and there are some very good selections on it. Pricing is a little hefty, even for the Upper West Side, with few selections below the $40 mark. We enjoyed a bottle of Vatistas Roditis 2004, with good acidity, lightly honeyed fruit flavors, and good length. A complimentary glass of an unidentified muscat was quite good as well.
Really good ideas and inspirations, just iffy executions. Perhaps some time in the future the style will come together better, perhaps not. Perhaps it’s just not my thing.