December 19, 2005
MY DINNER AT BARBOUNIA
At Barbounia, the new Mediterranean-inspired restaurant named for a red mullet, the chandelier is what you'll notice first. I am not sure if it is a chandelier as much as a giant feathered disco ball, or what I have come call "What Happened to Bjork's Swann Dress."
The first time I ate at Barbounia, with my friend Diana, we were seated directly underneath it. I felt a bit like I was either about to be beamed up to the Flight Deck of the Starship Enterprise, or would be asked to take a spin around the dance floor by John Travolta on roller skates. (Neither occurred.) When I returned with Julie and Kathy on Monday night, we were seated on the pillowed banquettes lining the perimeter of the pale caramel-colored dining room, to the left of the sparkling open kitchen, and we stared at it from a distance, mesmerized by its long white feathered wings rotating around its twinkling disco ball center. In this warm and elegantly designed space, warmed with sand tones, the chandelier is Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert.
Once you weigh in on your feelings about the chandelier, you can move onto cocktails (the Gin Citrus, the Philosopher King, and the Olympia are my favorites) at the stunning bar, lined in floor to ceiling windows and lit with bare bulbs on wire strings, lighting that is a striking contrast to What Happened to Bjork's Dress. Incidentally, the bar is a perfect place to pop in and grab a light bite, perhaps a few Mediterranean dips and bread, or a few of the menu's lighter apps, or selection of cured meats and cheeses. But I urge you to commit to dinner at least once because it was, for me, Julie and Kathy, a progression of "Mmmm, Yum, Wow, Oh my god, and Can I eat the last one?"
Michael Cressotti, who was hired after Mathew Akarino left, is proving to be a solid chef, someone who was mostly relegated to sushi and moqueca at Sushi Samba but who is now free to back up his talent with puffy ovals of olive oiled flat bread, wildly flavorful minced lamb kofte, meltingly tender rabbit, and so much more.
We started with a selection of Greek spreads, served in a sectioned Lucite dish with room for four dollops. We chose the creamy, dill-heavy tzatziki, a nice chunky babaganoush, a sweet toasted walnut yogurt, and a very fine hummus (4 for $14) served with aforementioned house-made bread—hot, puffy, and glossy with olive oil. Try to just order one loaf.
Cressotti's starter selection is nice and lengthy, which makes a meal of just appetizers a good option. I loved the charred octopus confit ($14). Cressotti braises the beast first, and then gives it some char and texture on the grill, and tosses it with kalamata olives, fava beans, celery leaves, and crystallized lemon. But the tuna crudo ($14) was a bit wan. We needed to brighten it with some lemon and a sheen of olive oil. That was really the only low point, and really, who needs another tuna crudo?
Instead, stick to the saganaki ($13)—the restaurant's baked cheese. This dish is a MUST ORDER of the highest priority. In fact, if you are not busy later, go in and order one at the bar. It involves several elements: a cast iron skillet filled with hot gooey melting cheese, a fig marmalade, fresh grapes and sliced apples, and slices of homemade walnut and cherry bread. The method: take some melted cheese, and drizzle, pour, and/or slather it on the bread, the apples (or your date), and top it off with some fig marmalade. Here my friends you will find that bliss via baked cheese is found. Then you must rouse yourself and get back in the game or your friends will have finished it off while you've been having you moment of Zen. Eating can be a competitive sport at my table.
After that cheese-gasm, we moved onto the kofte kebabs ($13)— fabulous cigars-shaped cylinders of minced beef and lamb amply seasoned with cumin, garlic, and coriander and served with a Turkish salad and a vibrant green mint tahini sauce. Our last app was the fire-roasted sardines ($12)—also terrific, and simple. They were grilled whole and topped with a tart salad fashioned from sheer ribbons of fennel and granny smith apples.
During intermission (the time between apps and entrees), we had a lot to cover. Julie had just returned from Italy with her husband and Kathy had just gotten back from a birthday weekend trip to Atlantic City with her husband, and I told them about a trip I was planning to Amansala (www.amansala.com) a yoga retreat in Tulum, Mexico with my friend Stacey. Then I took out a little surprise I had for each of them: copies of Sparks in the Kitchen (Knopf), the book I have been working on with Katy Sparks for the past three years. It was a big moment. Julie was one of my first editors, one of the first people to say "Okay, I know you are really new to this business and you barely have any experience, but okay, write a review for me." And Kathy was one of my first freelance writer friends. She and I were regular Time Out contributors when we met and instantly hit it off. That was four years ago, and they have become my writer support network, always there to simulate water cooler conversation: to bounce ideas off of, to complain about editors, and to make me feel like I am not in this alone. Being a freelancer can be tough in that way. Working all day alone in your apartment (especially when it is the size of a cereal box like mine is) can be maddening. But having two people who get it, and who know what it's like, has always made me feel a little bit more sane. Not that I am any more sane, but at least it feels that way.
Anyway, our entrees arrived just as they finished Oohing and Aahing over the book. We had ordered two items from the grill—lamb chops ($33) and a whole dourade ($29)—and both were flawless. The lamb chops, which I picked up by their French boned handles, and bit into like some sort of a cave woman, were juicy and pink and perfect, while the fish, filled up with herbs and lemon in its gills, was flaky and sweet. We passed around sides of creamy, nicely textured polenta, thickened with mascarpone, sautéed spinach topped with crispy bits of prosciutto, and braised greens, and then started in on the rabbit braciola ($27), a composed dish of rabbit loin, wrapped up in crisped Serrano ham crust and rabbit turnovers—tender braised rabbit seasoned with cinnamon and cumin, pulled apart and shredded and stuffed into phylo, sort of like rabbit Moroccan cigars. The dish was finished with a sundried cherry jus and oven-roasted sunchokes. It was a winner, and I think they should serve the rabbit cigars at the bar, by the platterful.
We were not really capable of eating another thing, but we decided one dessert was necessary. We picked a good one—the yogurt panna cotta ($9), an impossibly think, tart and tangy yogurt cream, topped with thinly sliced red grapes, a drizzle of elderflower syrup, and a sprig of mint.
Leaning back into our comfy pillowed banquette, finishing off our sherry, we gazed at What Happened to Bjork's Dress. The white feathers circled the glittery ball, reflecting slivers of neon light. It was magical. No, it is not every day that you find a disco ball in an elegant Mediterranean restaurant, but then I thought, when the food makes you this happy, it sort of makes sense.
Barbounia is located at 250 Park Avenue South, at 20th Street, 212-995-0242.