One evening at Bar Blanc's eponymous white marble-topped bar, I sat next to two men who, after a couple of $15 drinks at the bar, wanted a bite to eat. But a quick perusal of the menu sent them on their way without ordering. As one of the pair remarked: "This place is like a museum for food."
The West Village restaurant is remarkably stiff and unwelcoming by design, literally and figuratively colorless so as to throw Bouley-trained chef César Ramirez's jewel-like food into thrilling relief. But the effect works too well, making the restaurant's customers feel just as out of place as a colorful, vibrant meal in the middle of an inorganic sea of white. Even the sculptural short-backed seats discourage any sort of repose.
In a hard-sell maneuver, diners have to navigate an increasingly common restaurant rite of passage upon being seated and handed the drinks list: They must order an aperitif, or explicitly refuse to, before they're allowed to set eyes on the food menu. Drink options run from sugary cocktails through a wide-ranging wine list whose 100 or so bottles largely bear three-figure price tags.
The menu offers an excess of description about such delights as "pan seared jumbo scallop basted with orange zest confit." Fortunately, the cooking is almost as tasty as it is precious. A big-eye tuna starter ($18) comprises two pieces of the fish side by side. One is served raw and delicate under a composed pile of mushrooms, greens, sprouts, and burdock chips in a smoky slick of squid ink; the other is an unadorned pink-and-tan tile of fish barely cooked in fat that lushly permeates the porous meat.
Mr. Ramirez's cooking makes the most of tender little meats, as in a starter of two sweetbreads laid on a slice of layered, pressed rabbit terrine ($14). The sweetbreads, cooked ever so gently and left to their own devices, are big and wonderful, their middles as pale and delicate as the soft ricotta that's unnecessarily dolloped on top. The underlying dense cake of white-meat rabbit is bland and far less noteworthy.
But rabbit has its day in the sun as the meat in an excellent pasta course ($22), where dark, intensely flavored braised shreds of it twine among clumps of fresh fettuccine. Slivers of tart olives and a pungent mustard sauce add depth, but the flavors are still clean and discrete enough that subtleties such as the eggy taste of the noodles are apparent. Ravioli ($20) are filled with a creamy cheese mixture and slathered in a creamy sauce — "lettuce sauce," according to the menu — for a creamy gestalt only marred by an overgenerous garnishment with curlicues of what seemed to be an infelicitously acrid pea vine.
Sliced chicken breast ($26) is cottony and flavorless, but juicy accompanying fingerlings of mildly spiced Vienna sausage made from dark-meat chicken show a much more interesting facet of the bird. Heading up the menu is "milk fed porcelet" ($32), an 8-week-old piglet with the absurdly tender flesh one might expect. It's roasted, sliced, and served with a smear of hot mustard; each meaty piece is capped with a brittle, salty strip of skin and a layer of pink fat. The contrast between the immediacy and organic-ness of the dish, and the sterile dry air of the restaurant, is startling.
Desserts ($10) — a dainty puff of Meyer lemon soufflé with excellent goat-cheese ice cream, and a grainy oblong of butternut squash custard — match the effete feel of the rest of the cooking. The food is unquestionably artful, but its artfulness is so much the emphasis that it's hard to really get comfortable with what you're eating, hard to gauge whether it has personality or only style, and hard to enjoy.
Bar Blanc (142 W. 10th St., between Greenwich Avenue and Waverly Place, 212-255-2330).