Putting Food First

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The Upper East Side’s restaurants mostly peter out above 96th Street.

Even four blocks beyond that boundary, a restaurant’s arrival is noteworthy. This spring saw one such blessed event. What used to be Dinerbar has been transformed and expanded by its owners into Food, a new spot that’s humble in both name and design.

The chef’s resume, which includes stints at Nobu and French Laundry, might lead one to expect a more ambitious kitchen, but the main ambition here seems to be finding an audience in the neighborhood. And the means to that end involves the chef, Scott Geller, dialing down his creativity to a simmer and providing skillful dishes with few surprises. And so he demonstrates a fine mastery of the basics, such as a thick hamburger ($8) that doesn’t deviate even slightly from what a burger should be. It comes with crisply flavorful skin-on fries, lots of them, and laden with toppings. Good as the beef is, though, it’s only a sideline: The restaurant’s real focus is fish, of which it grills a parade of different species.

Canadian hake, a lean, versatile relative of the cod, finds its way into a few seafood classics. A rich and milky chowder ($5), rife with chunks of hake and bacon, makes a fine starter and even transports the eater for a short moment to a New England shore. Fish tacos ($12) offer a ride in a different direction. Three chewy tortillas overflow, messily and delectably, with juicy hake, fried in a tempura-like batter, and crunchy cabbage slaw, refreshed by a smoky, tart pair of salsas. It’s not a complex dish, but each ingredient counts, and each one plays its role to the hilt. And hake takes center stage once again for fish and chips ($13), where a brackish tartar sauce complements the fish in its fluffy batter coat, and the yeomanly fries step up to the plate again.

There’s a wider world of fish out there, though, and a fresh selection of it makes it to Food, where the principle that shopping is a major part of cooking is well understood. Bluepoint oysters are great raw or fried ($8 for a half-dozen), especially with a refreshing white wine. Atlantic salmon ($15), a simply grilled menu staple, is good; a black bass catch-of-the-day ($19) was much better, its seared skin and buttery flesh full of flavor and complemented by spiced coconut rice that could be East or West Indian. Another day’s fish du jour was the seldom-sighted wahoo, a mackerel relative whose delicate but rich meat benefitted handsomely from the simple cooking it received.

Catfish, duly blackened with Cajun spice ($15), is terrifically full of flavor, even without tartar sauce; but the seasonal grilled asparagus that comes with it is so fresh it almost steals the show. The asparagus (or a second helping of asparagus) can be had without the catfish for $4, along with a wealth of other sides including rich macaroni and cheese. A few lightly creative touches show up from time to time, as when a few familiar dishes are fused into a new special: blackened tuna tacos ($14), which offer the joys of Cajun and Baja Californian cooking in one drippy, savory package. And banana adds a strange but enjoyable thick sweetness to the spicy dipping sauce for fried calamari rings ($7).

Beer on tap suits the cooking well, and the restaurant offers several crisp varieties – smooth Newcastle, spicy-sweet Hoegaarden, biting Victory Prima – each for $4.50.A score of wines from eight different countries rounds out the drinking options nicely. There’s a limey, refreshing Santa Julia torrontes ($7/$27) from Argentina; Washington state’s earthy “Recess Red” blend ($40), and Pierre Boniface’s stony, fresh-appley Apremont ($8/$31).

A berry-studded approximation of bananas Foster is the highlight of the desserts (all $5), conglomerating bananas, fresh berries, caramel sauce, and vanilla ice cream – what’s not to like? For variety, though, there’s a light, citrusy panna cotta, and a nightly sorbet trio.

Ultimately, Food provides just what it advertises: food, with very little extraneous baggage. The restaurant’s careful simplicity will act as the narrow end of a wedge, perhaps, using unassuming dishes and moderate prices to widen a niche for itself. Meanwhile, Mr. Geller’s skill and sure hand is enough to make Food an enclave worth at least an extra 10 blocks’ trip.

Food, 1569 Lexington Ave., between 100th and 101st streets, 212-348-0200.

The New York Sun

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