May 7, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

O’erleaping Ambition at Insieme

Even a mixed salad is surprising at Insieme. Photo: Steven Richter
    It is the radish that makes me shiver with unexpected pleasure.  One of three little amusements, each on its own dish at Insieme, on the Seventh Avenue hip of the Michelangelo Hotel. Sure, the itsy cod canapés and the goat’s milk ricotta bruschetta are fine, but the radishes are a tell.  They stand like unruly recruits on a narrow oval plate – one for each us – radishes of various girth and waddle, a small hole on top in each filled with anchovy’d olive oil and sea salt. It spills into your mouth (if you don’t accidently spill it on the table). Craft veteran Chef Marco Canora is reaching beyond the rustic boundaries of Hearth and he isn’t relying on bizarre juxtapositions to catch our attention.

    Yes, there are missteps, mostly minor.  The chef’s second wave offering,  a tea cup of stracciatella soup, sensational indeed, is also too salty and needs a spoon to get the last strands of egg. I like the idea of a fritto misto with veal and its innards - calf liver, sweetbreads, and veal tongue - so maybe it’s the breading and frying that leave me cold.  And I suppose I could say the calamari stuffed with a shrimp mousse in a heap of ramps and white asparagus with a hint of orange is a bit fussy.  But only next to the sensuous pleasure of baby beef tartare with minced porcini alla piemontse, and a thrilling (though tiny) cut of “gently cooked Tasmanian king salmon” wearing a spring salad and salmon roe.  Both have a citrus tang that enlivens much of what emerges from Canora’s hand.  Even a salad of lettuces and crudités is special. And the classic boiled meats come with classic condimenti tipici - salsa verde, horseradish cream, and minced mustard fruits.  More citrus, much savor.

    And the chef plays with texture, too.  Everywhere there’s a crunch, as in the bits of cucumber that hide in a sensational risotto, briny with Santa Barbara sea urchin. Black olive tinged fettucine with duck ragu, foie gras and minced olive is more exciting than the merely very good lasagna, but I agree with my mate, who finds a peppery linguine with clams “the best he’s tasted since I can remember.”  (And he tends to order pasta with clams wherever he finds it). He’s so impressed by the splendid shellfish and fish stew (rightly so), he orders both dishes again when we return the next night to show off our find to friends.

    Amadou Ly’s ricotta-orange torta and chocolate hazelnut gianduja bar cake are fine, not roller coaster thrills that have left us marveling. The warm semolina cake with olive oil and a fig emulsion hidden in its belly is my favorite.  It would be a great breakfast to wake up to, a nice relief to the kibbles and bits routine.

    At first I am more surprised than cheered by the un-Hearthian look Canora and his partner, Sommelier Paul Grieco, have summoned here from their architects, Bentel & Bentel. So clean and rather stark, white fringe dividers and curtains, white topped tables with those plastic mats you see everywhere, usually black, beige here...did I ever say anything nice about them?  Sorry. I find it daring and original.  But then, uneven lighting annoys.  I like to see my food. A friend I consider an astute arbiter of taste suggests the place looks 1970’s Sheraton Hotel. That makes me look again.

    And maybe the menu divisions are confusing – classic dishes on the left, modern Italian on the right, a tasting dinner eccentrically laid out in the middle.  Well, never mind.  You’ll be here for all the dazzle of flavor and invention.  I wish you could have tasted as I did, with no expectations.  And I’ll hope the kitchen can live up to what I’ve written, before Las Vegas beckons, or the Food Network calls, and while armies of food-smitten New Yorkers are demanding a table.

777 Seventh Avenue, just south of 51st Street. 212 765 1900.

Cafe Fiorello