November 29, 1999 | Insatiable Critic


Thalia unleashes some much-needed star power on the theater district.

        The balsamic dribbles and pomegranate seeds of chefly obsession are starting to rain even on Eighth Avenue. Between the gyros and the rubbery pizza in the junk-food Fifties we find luscious roasted kabocha-squash soup with foie gras and hazelnuts. Crab-and-leek tarte tatin with vanilla-bean sauce. Scallops and parsnips in chervil broth. Yes, on Eighth Avenue, as Escoffier is my witness. It begins, obviously, with real-estate madness. Build a condo and they will come. Restaurant mania is never far behind. Slow-braise those short ribs. Plop those kumamoto oysters in cucumber cups. Restaurant junkies and driven first-nighters are here to check out Thalia. A quartet of partners is bidding to create a destination in a soaring space with roof beams flying and massive columns. 

        And chef Michael Otsuka has come from triumphs and disillusion on the West Coast, tired of forever being hailed as a rising star, yet still an unsung name. His budding romance with Verbena's chef-owner Diane Forley made the deal that much sweeter. Even so, landing on spottily gentrified Eighth from the kitchen of Los Angeles's top-ranked Patina and San Francisco's Pan Pacific Hotel is a lot like being shot out of John Malkovich's brain and landing in the brush alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. But anyone who's been around long enough to remember when Columbus Avenue was an uptown Bowery might even bet that Eighth will have its day. And Thalia (as in the Greek muse of comedy, not the late, lamented movie revival house on upper Broadway) may be its early symptom. Massive apartment fortresses shadow the place already, though I question how many Eighth Avenue tenants can afford appetizers from $9 to $14 (or $40 for truffled risotto) and entrées $17 to $29. Still, the bar menu and the early $32 prix fixe may become a draw before or after theater. 

        Though global fusion is Otsuka's birthright -- he has a Viennese Jewish mother, a Japanese-American father, and a French-trained mentor in Joachim Splichal, who took him into his kitchen at 17 -- the best of his menu is Western: crisply caramelized quail on endive. Terrine of smoked ham hocks and leeks. An amazingly delicious green-bean salad. Sweet-edged scallops and parsnips with chanterelles in brown butter. A nuttily crumbed mushroom gratin. Slow-roasted salmon with succotash in a veal jus. Double pork-loin chop with braised greens and smoked jasmine rice. Lush short ribs braised in Cabernet. But when he tries too hard -- propping marvelously dressed sashimi and cold pressed spinach on an ice floe -- it's annoying. The crab Tatin is a gummy mess. The magnificent flavor of his venison gets lost under a crust of shallot purée and chopped pecans. At an otherwise delicious lunch, the crisp duck confit has nothing to do with the orchiette it's mounded atop. 

        Otsuka brought a sous-chef east with him and pastry chef Verité Mazzola, a veteran of San Francisco's Rubicon and One Market. She does tarte Tatin with spiced walnuts and a horizontal napoleon with pecan florentines, bourbon parfait, and midnight chocolate sauce. With coffee come fabulous little chocolate cookies, but I could do without the tarragon in her chocolate bonbons. 

        With every visit the kitchen grows stronger. Otsuka says he's adjusting to the culture shock, still struggling to find the produce he wants. He enlisted his girlfriend to show him the ropes in Chinatown. At noon, autumn light pours in, warming Jerry/Haines Design Studio's yin and yang -- icy glass, bare walls, warm wooden panels with illuminated cubicles, jewel-tone glass, dramatic stems of orchids. The elevated family table up front fills up with ones and twos. There's a daily three-course $22 prix fixe lunch, along with the à la carte menu, but it's all too serious for me. I'd like to see the chef play with a short-rib sandwich or tuna, avocado, and shiso with wasabi on baguette. But Verite's chocolate crème brûlée -- a super chocolate pudding -- is just the caffeine jolt to get me through the afternoon. 

Thalia, 828 Eighth Avenue, near 49th Street; 212-399-4444. Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.