A pair of Colicchio vets go it alone.
Wed Apr 16 2008
Photograph: Jeff Gurwin
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
Elettaria, the solo debut from former EU chef Akhtar Nawab and front-of-the-house partner Noel Cruz, seems to be working from a familiar downtown restaurant checklist. One madhouse Saturday night, I was seated at a long line of tables between rowdy bankers and a pair of striking blondes debating the merits of launching their own reality show. A waitress in a Lela Rose uniform delivered perfect cocktails, vigorously shaken by veterans of Death & Company and Freemans—with retro mustaches, no less—from behind a bar stacked six deep.
Designer Jason Volenec, the man behind Allen & Delancey’s noticeably similar decor, has transformed a long-shuttered rock club into a shabby-chic/urban-rustic amalgam of cool. A cutoff staircase to nowhere littered with knickknacks—an antique table lamp, a hand-me-down vase, a leaning photograph in a scuffed frame—appears to be swallowed up by the dark wooden ceiling. A row of tables, bordered by plush retro-lounge seating, directs all eyes toward a kitchen that’s lit up like a Food Network set.
There, Nawab and his young brigade piece together a menu full of critic catnip, featuring nose-to-tail proteins and such of-the-moment ingredients as tapioca, pea leaves, sunchokes, and Szechuan pepper. The chef, who made a name for himself at Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar (where he first met Cruz), also douses his menu with flavors reflecting his Indian heritage. But despite the delicious promise of this eclectic bill of fare, its personality rarely comes through in the food. There’s an underlying timidity, and a work-in-progress inconsistency, to much that emerges from the kitchen.
Sweetbreads—a Craftbar mainstay—are encrusted with pink peppercorns, then sprinkled with warm pineapple cubes. Seared crisp on the outside and still pillowy within, they had an ideal texture, but the flavors were surprisingly bland. A boneless pig’s foot stuffed with rice and slow-cooked in caul fat was rich and unctuous, but just shy of craveable, as if an ingredient were missing.
The kitchen performs better when the restaurant is not prime-time manic. One weekday evening, I managed to land a seat at the bar, and found my way to the chef’s deep-fried quail, an appetizer-cum-bar-snack so bold and memorable, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it knocked off around town. Four quail quarters are dredged in a beer-and-rice-flour batter, then fried up golden. Served with a deep-fried soft-boiled quail egg and frisée dressed with bracing pomegranate-bacon vinaigrette, the dish is a delicious reminder of Nawab’s talent. Now if only the rest of the food here had as much to say.
Entrées, in which the Indian-fusion is most at play, suffer from an identity crisis—with one awkward foot stuck in Nawab’s restaurant jobs past, and the other embarking on its own path. Perfectly tender medium-rare duck breast felt entirely disconnected from the ground-duck keema—imagine a dense Indian-spiced bolognese—spread out beneath it. Striped-bass fillet on herbed pilaf, meanwhile, was textbook seared fish lounging on a bland bed of grain. Though the beets, slow stewed to a pulp in red wine and vinegar, were a more flavorful accompaniment, the dish still failed to jell.
Meanwhile, with no marquee name running the pastry department—paging Will Goldfarb!—desserts get short shrift. Among the four Indian-inflected options, was traditional rasmalai, made with ricotta instead of the usual paneer. The supersweet, cheesecakelike confection was surrounded by cardamom crème anglaise—and was so dense I could barely eat half. A much lighter but still too-sweet mango-lychee tart layered almond crust with mango jam, sponge cake and yogurt icing. The ingredients seemed to say Cochin or Goa, but the flavors didn’t carry me past 8th Street.
While Nawab and Cruz have taken great care to compete with the best of their contemporaries in the hip, downtown restaurant arena, the chef’s complex, often ambitious food throws Elettaria off its course. If Nawab finds his voice, his debut eatery could conceivably evolve from moderate hit to the sensation it aspires to be.