When the owners of Barbounia announced they were launching a new restaurant, they didn't say they were planning to replace Patria—which basically invented Nuevo Latino in New York a decade ago—with a Mediterranean eatery that evokes a Roman orgy inside Studio 54. Nor were they keen on revealing that their original chef, Per Se's Matthew Accarrino, walked out just before the unveiling. That wouldn't have sounded good.
Like a perfect sitcom plot, however, everything worked out fine. Chef Michael Cressotti, formerly of Sushi Samba, took over the kitchen. And the space turned out to be superfabulous in a supercomfortable way: Pillows stacked three deep line the banquettes; a human soap dispenser (a bathroom attendant) and sparkling azure tiles glam up the unisex bathroom area; and a feathers-and-glitter chandelier lords over a series of arches and columns.
The menu leans heavily on Greek and Turkish cuisine—it's more Aegean than Mediterranean, if you must pick a sea—with lots of upscale takes on souvlaki, kebabs and the like. Order the namesake Barbounia (Greek-speak for red mullet), and you get a crisp-skinned tiny appetizer that evidences a hint of licorice flavor, thanks to the sparing use of chervil—it's quickly pleasant in an amuse-bouche kind of way. The most compelling Greek starter, saganaki, combined still-sizzling hot kasseri cheese (in a cast-iron skillet) with small slices of cherry-and-walnut bread and a truffle-scented fig marmalade. Hot and cold, savory and sweet, chewy and doughy: The juxtapositions work on all levels.
True to the region, there's lots of wood-fired grilling of both fish and meats, and Cressotti gets a nice, thick, smoky char onto his perfectly cooked lamb chops. More interesting are the composed entrées: pan-seared veal medallions with mascarpone polenta, for example, or roasted chicken with saffron orzo. The rabbit braciola is prepared in two ways: On one side of the plate is a roasted loin wrapped in serrano ham; and on the other, leg meat and cinnamon stuffed into a phyllo cigar—a sweet, gamey combination that reminded me of a delicious, easy-to-eat Moroccan pastilla.
Cressotti scores more points for his derivative desserts than for his originals. The "Turkish delight" wasn't an inspired take on jellied candy as I imagined, but rather a sweet interpretation of three Turkish flavors—candied apricots, spice cake and a terrific, dark, pungent coffee custard. A less ambitious dessert, the caramelized banana tart, places bananas over a chocolate cookie and adds sour-cream ice cream; it's delicious, though I'm not sure anyone on either side of the Aegean would recognize it.
While the thinking here is consistently big, the portions can be skimpy. The four unadorned $31 lamb chops, for example, were small, and side dishes cost an extra $6. Then again, no one at Studio 54 ever complained about the size of the drinks (Barbounia's impressively original cocktail list is full of muddled fresh-fruit concoctions, including one that makes excellent use of ouzo). Replacing a legend like Patria isn't easy, but no ones cares about illustrious predecessors when they're having this good a time.