April 25, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Covina: For Your Consideration

 Wood grilled lamb kebab is served on the skewer on a massive ceramic plate. The server removes the skewer.
Wood grilled lamb kebab is served on the skewer on a massive ceramic plate. The server removes the skewer.

          The turf east of Flatiron and the photo district, NoMad and LoMad, is lush soil for adventurous and stylish eating: ABC Café and Cocina, NoMad, The Breslin, Gramercy Tavern. Coq Rico. Kat & Theo. La Pecora Bianca. I won’t go on. I’m not Zagat.

 
Covina stretches from the bar pass tables and banquettes past the open kitchen with its four counter seats.

          Thanks to newsy alerts from FloFab at the Times, I had Covina on my new restaurant list, but with no particular imperative to get there. Lyn, a neighborhood local, chose it for our first meeting. Many turns of the taxi meter later, the driver spotted the marquee on 27th Street.

 
There’s a lot of action at what seems to be the antipasto station. Maybe it dispenses desserts, too

          It looks familiar. Covina. Have I been here before? Is it one of the dozens of vaguely Italian, California-inspired, or trending French spots I’ve lingered in this year, not good or bad enough to write about? I walk past the bar, some tables, the banquettes wrapped in more or less Indian fabric, printed panels between storage cupboards on the back wall, past the four counter seats at the open kitchen to our table facing the action.

 
How about a wonderfully blistered pie with Brussels sprouts, mascarpone, Fontina bèchamel and pear thins?

          I choose the $14 Boulevardier. “A Negroni meets a Bourbon Manhattan – an aperitif for the whiskey lover.” That’s after rejecting the Madeira Cobbler “garnished with wild abandon.”  I instruct my three companions to each choose two dishes in any category while I send the server off to fetch a pizza. I don’t even need to see a serious wood-burning oven. If pizza is on the menu, that’s how I like to launch dinner.

 
 Shaved asparagus is tossed with black pepper and pecorino – Cacio e Pepe.

          I let Lyn decide – it’s her domain, after all, but the rest agree: Brussels sprouts with mascarpone and fontina béchamel. That puffed up, blistered beauty on a black metal stand gets my attention even before the first bite. It looks like one of Laurent Tourondel’s singed beauties at L’Amico – but bigger. More expensive, too. It’s a smart couturier pie with impressive breeding, make that breading.

 
Hungarian fry bread is covered with smoked salmon curls and red onion slivers on kefir ranch dressing.

          I have to try the Hungarian fry bread, too, even though it might seem redundant, if not dangerous, after the pizza. I can assure you it’s a moment in culinary history for fry bread. (Click here to read about fry bread seduction at Nix)  Covina’s crisped dough wears a silken blanket of smoked salmon, on top of kefir ranch creaminess, with scattered lemon zest and a spill of greenery for intimations of healthful nutrition.

 
I say skip the Parker House rolls and go for the pizza with its flavorful dough.

          Covina is another restaurant not serving free bread. Not that we need bread at this point, although one of our foursome decides he must have the baked-to-order Parker House rolls to scoop up the polenta under the shrimp. He tries the spicy honey butter, too, while the rest of us look on in admiration.

 
Chicken skin crisps stand up in chicken liver and foie gras mousse stretched across the pottery plate.

          Almost everything on the menu is quirky or, at least, a bit differently tricked out than might be expected. Chicken liver and foie gras mousse is spread like frosting on a heavy ceramic plate with chips of chicken skin cracklings standing up, and a scattering of pickled and fresh radish thins. See what I mean? I could never have put that together. Fresh fried artichoke chips stud the salmon tartare, plus celery leaves and radish curls.

 
Salmon tartare, pierced with fried artichoke chips, is topped with radish thins and celery leaves. 

          My friend who ordered the curried cauliflower (listed under “Share”) finds the thick, heavily spiced stew of peas, charred garlic yogurt and cilantro mint chutney too intense. “It should be a main course,” he keeps insisting. Yes, it’s complex and filling, but that’s not anything I’m likely to complain about.

 
Pork, veal and beef meatballs park in San Marzano tomato sugo.

          Pork, veal and beef meatballs in a San Marzano tomato sauce or the homemade fennel pork sausage  offer comfort and familiarity for less adventurous eaters who might be intimidated by shaved raw asparagus with black pepper and grated pecorino, aka “cacio e pepe.”

 
Wood grilled shell-on Florida shrimp ride in on a sprawl of polenta with smoked pasilla chile sauce. 

          I might like the tuna sauce of the charred broccolini tonnato to be less grainy. And perhaps the grilled Florida shrimp moored in polenta with a smoked pasilla chile sauce could be a bit bigger. It’s $18, so I think that’s fair to suggest.

 
Mandilli are folded sheets of pasta stuffed with ricotta and almond pesto on fresh tomato sauce.

          That first evening, we share two pastas – Mandilli, a folded sheet of noodle dough stuffed with ricotta and almond pesto on a puddle of San Marzano sauce, and feisty Bucatini with guanciale, pecorino, crushed red pepper and more of that smashed red tomato sauce.

 
Crushed red pepper and pork cheek make for spicy bucatini alla amatriciana.

          Then we pass around half of a roasted chicken.  On a second visit, after splitting the meatballs and the excellent pepperoni and soppressata pizza with a mix of house made fior di latte and commercial mozzarella, I find myself craving a salad.

 
After pepperoni pizza and Hungarian fry bread, the crunchy romaine hearts of a Caesar salad are welcome.

          Lyn recommends the Caesar. It turns out to be what I want in a Caesar, crisp whole leaves of Romaine hearts, chunky croutons and a whole anchovy or three. I prefer Parmesan shredded the old-fashioned way to the snow you get with a rasp grater, but that’s a minor grumble.

 
The salmon in a puddle of Meyer lemon buerre blanc is satisfying for Lyn, but too overcooked for me.

          The salmon is handsomely served in a puddle of Meyer lemon beurre blanc with signature green dots. Lyn orders it two dinners in a row. It’s definitely overcooked for me. So is the wood-grilled lamb köfte that arrives stunningly skewered on a major piece of pottery. I would have asked for it rare, but it’s not even medium although my friend requested medium rare.

 
Covina was really hopping on a Monday evening. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what to eat.

          I suspect our server forgot to give the instruction to the kitchen. The place has suddenly filled up and she is racing around the room, tenderly collecting orders, but also totally distracted. Charred garlic yogurt, onion and sumac with the lamb save the day.

 
Pastry chef Deanie Hickox does warm Medjool date cake with Earl Grey ice cream, caramel and roasted pear. 

          It takes a certain confidence and experience to insist on extracting the ultimate kick from spices by cooking them in hot oil. And to smash and smoke marble potatoes, then flavor them with charred spring garlic. I’m realizing the pizza dough is too intense to be just a hand-me-down from an Italian childhood. There’s a serious chef here.

 
Chocolate budino is rich pudding in a jar with cocoa nib crumble and coffee cream.

          I had never heard of the Park South Hotel (not even after its recent $20 million renovation.) I’ve not been aware of Tim and Nancy Cushman, who first created feeding on the hotel roof, then opened O Ya, a rarified seedling of their highly-rated sushi bar in Boston, before launching Covina several weeks ago. I was not aware of their collective honors and “Bests ofs.”

 
Boston’s Nancy and Tim Cushman created the feeding at Park South Hotel: The Roof, O Ya sushi, now Covina. 

          I google. Since becoming sidetracked from a musical career by restaurants, Tim Cushman has worked in Japan, Germany, France, Mexico and Thailand. As corporate chef at Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago from 1987 to 1994, he opened several restaurants in Japan for Rich Melman.

 
Pepperoni and soppressata pizza has mozzarella two ways including fresh housemade fior di latte. 

          And yes, he is a pizza fanatic. He has his own hand-built Stefano Ferrara oven in his Norfolk, Mass, backyard. He’s spent many calories in Naples and explored all the crucial stops on our town’s pizza map. He developed his own dough using two different flours and two days cold fermentation.

          The purple dots on the chicken liver foie gras plate are saba. Yes, the kefir is made in house. “We started the culture some years ago,” he says. The fry bread with its smoked salmon, capers and fennel fronds is an ode to New York. It’s not a bagel, but it aspires to be equally essential.

          Soon there will be carryout, up front. Good for the neighborhood.

127 East 27th Street between Lexington Avenue  and Park Avenue South. 212 204 0225. Dinner Sunday to Tuesday 5:30 to 10 pm. Wednesday to Saturday to 11 pm. Lunch and brunch to follow.

 

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Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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