205 E 45th St., New York, NY
Review by Diana, SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Jools, MostlyIrish
Marcus Samuelsson is Swedish by adoption, and learned to cook from his Swedish grandmother and was apprenticed in the traditional European manner and worked in kitchens in Europe. He was likely the only black man anywhere he went, for Samuelsson and his sister were Ethiopian refugee orphans. Their parents had died during a smallpox epidemic and the precocious 3 year old walked to a Swedish Red Cross station to get aid for his sick infant sister. The nurse knew of a couple looking to adopt, and such is history created.
Samuelsson is likely less confused about his heritage than others may be. He's the executive chef at Aquavit, the Scandinavian inspired power-eatery in New York and Minnesota. His deft treatment and interpretations of the food of his adopted homeland don't seem far-removed from Japanese cuisine (in fact, many scholars purport that the Japanese language is related, somehow, to Finnish), and so he created Riingo and placed it in the Alex Hotel in a quiet, almost-neglected corner of midtown.
The hotel itself has a stark, beautiful decor reminiscent of sort-of Japanese and sort-of Scandinavian, which matches Riingo's food and concept perfectly. We especially like the fireplace up front.
Having had Japanese food, this does seem a curious treatment of it the place is inspired in that Japanese way, and the layout of the long narrow space is similar to many Asian dining establishments. There is a narrow passthrough area where you can peek into the kitchen, and there are stools set up at the counter there so you can dine alone by the sushi chef. You walk to the back, which opens up into a wider (but still small) dining room, and the decor is somewhat Japanese and somewhat Swedish. There is a projection of a candle, repeated over a dozen times. The candle burns through the evening, and they change it when it does go out.
There is also a mezannine level for private dining, should you require this. The restaurant is open for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner, as is normal for a hotel place, where travelers wish to have something to eat before setting out for their business or tourist day. And in the front area, closest to the street, is the bar/lounge, which is tastefully decorated and it's where you can wait for your table, or just come by for cocktails. This makes the back dining room much more quiet, which is rather nice.
The bread basket contains a bunch of crackery things, filled with seeds and seasoned with seaweed and things which seem more Asian, yet it could be like that crispbread you find in Scandinavian stores. There is also a more traditional roll and "torpedo" shape made with sourdough and baguette dough, respectively. They are very snackable, and snap-off crackery things are actually a nicer nibble with drinks as you contemplate your food order. They fill you up less, though you do run the risk of nibbling too much.
Instead of butter, the breads were accompanies by a edamame puree in olive oil and spices. It was tasty and bright green!
You also get a bowl of edamame, or Japanese soybeans. They're boiled or steamed simply and served in the pod. You eat them by popping them in your mouth and pulling out the beans and discarding the pod. In Japan, the pod is simply flavored with salt, but here, the edamame is seasoned with pepper and spices, which is a nice touch. Especially if you are a drinker, since spicy and salty food will make you want to drink more.
There were four of us, and so we each ordered different things, so we could sample a fuller range of offerings. The menu offerings were extensive, but they seems like of weird. Fusion cuisine can do that things are familiar but they aren't. And if too many people try for "different" then it all seems to look the same. For instance, everyone has a variation of roasted beets with goat cheese. Here, the cheese was glazed with red beets. Dumplings are made out of chicken. Salmon is smoked with or served with jasmine tea. Tuna is served rare, and gnocchi or risotto utilizes kabocha, or Japanese pumpkin. We've seen it many, many times, with varying success.
For appetizers, we opted for crabcakes in basalmic glaze; seared scallop with lobster sausage; fois gras and microgreen salad; tuna tartare with pickled vegetables. They were all tasty, but for those of us familiar with both French and Japanese cuisine, there seemed to be some missing depth. It's as if there was too much going on on the forefront, in an attempt to integrate the flavors and concepts, so any deeper meaning was left to deal on its own. Not to be mean about it, but these seemed like orphaned cuisine ...
Not to say it wasn't good ... it just seemed to be off-key. Maybe the Asian fusion thing really doesn't work all that well over a whole menu. Or maybe we should have ordered the kobe beef as a sushi roll?
For the main course, we decided on things that seemed to hit our sensibilities: grilled hangar steak salad with lime soy vinaigrette (which seems innocuous enough to be presented in any pub); nori-wrapped salmon served with mussels in a sauce/broth; trio of lamb (chop, shank, skewer); smoked chili roasted chicken with israeli couscous and tamatillo; and braised pork belly with kobacha cavatelli.
Samuelsson is considered a genius with fish, but we have to say that the meat dishes were excellent. He seemes to understand that Japanese cuisine is mostly about braising and grilling, rather than anything more complicated, and those dishes worked best. The hangar steak was just what a meat lover would love, and salmon does go really well with nori. It looks like sushi, but isn't.
The lamb was served with a loose-form mushroom lasagne, which was excellent on its own. The chicken was okay, but I guess we've fallen too much in love with American regional barbecue to really love it. Kabocha makes for a great dumpling/pasta, by the way. It's interesting that the side dishes kind of stole the show from the mains.
Dessert used to be a bigger production a sling of chocolate housing a mousse served with chocolate ice cream, green tea donuts with green tea ice cream served atop an apple compote. We got these, along with an espresso martini, shaken with kahlua. We've noticed that the dessert menu has become more pedestrian lately, probably because this is more of a bar than it is a gourmet hang-out. There are now such things as oreo cheesecakes and ice cream cones with a variety of 'daily special' flavors of ice cream and sorbet. The desserts were good.
Finally, petits fours were presented with the check. They were really wonderful a tea spongecake with lemon white chocolate, or a pistachio white chocolate brittle, and a spiced chocolate truffle. We should have asked for these up front!
The check came to about $50 per person, which is a very reasonable cost for the quality of food and beverage. Any of the dishes would have made someone's night for creativity and flair, but if you're a jaded foodie, it can be kind of overkill. I guess we aren't as innocent as we once were. But it was good, was good value, and it was a quiet place on a Saturday night. We hope Riingo does succeed, even though it's an Asian fusion boomlet place; that's not to say it's a bad thing!
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