April 6, 2015 | BITE: My Journal

Santina: A Coastal Fantasy

Chickpea crepes come in an iron pan on a cake stand to tear off and stuff with a choice of saucers.
Chickpea crepes come in an iron pan on a cake stand to tear off and stuff with a choice of saucers.

          Of course I’m smug. All of us are sitting up straighter. Elizabeth has seen a parade of Upper East Side pals at the bar waiting for tables, so no one has to tell her Santina is the hottest place to eat right now. The blown glass floral chandeliers from Murano are a hoot in this tropical terrarium. Which one is for you, if you had your dibs? Parked on display at a couple of small marble two-tops pushed together at the window, I feel like I’m basking on a terrace in Positano or spending Easter in Palermo.

A glass box with Venetian chandeliers on what used to be the waterfront in The Meat Market.

          Yes, we are pleased with ourselves. We scored a table. (Confession: I wasn’t getting anywhere being anonymous like most every other over-achiever in town. I surrendered. I had a company number to call, so the manager hovering knows who I am…or who I used to be.)

This bouquet of crudités comes with a trio of dips: spicy peppadew, anchovy caper aioli and pesto.

          And we are all bamdoozled by the march toward us of a big terracotta tub of crudités. Our tropical cocktails are pushed aside to make room. Now I am dragging a disc of turnip and then a curl of radicchio through first one, and then another dip -- tangy peppadew, anchovy caper aioli and pesto -- red white and green. They invoke the tri-colore of the kitchen’s Italian coastal theme in this vibrant vitrine named for Mario Carbone’s Sicilian grandmother.

That’s my fruity bourbon Amalfi Gold with too much ice, alongside the tequila Manganelli Punch.

          The Major Food Group rascals -- Mario, Rich Torrisi, and their hard-driving business brain Jeff Zalaznick -- competed to win this feeding franchise from the new Whitney Museum.  They’re not just ambitious and determined. They’re also smart and funny, even unabashedly diabolical. Everything has a plot. The metastasizing low country Parm is a visit to Grandma. Carbone with its larcenous waiters in burgundy prom jackets and sneakers is an upscale homage to Mulberry Street from a chef who trained with Daniel Boulud. Dirty French is wicked, but not too -- French deliciously corrupted with Moroccan and Algerian influences. They are theme parks for grownups.

Santina’s tropical glass box is not a place for secret affairs. Photo by Daniel Kreiger.

          The trio didn’t dream up this glass box. That was architect Renzo Piano’s flashy inspiration. (The Louvre has a glass triangle, so, why not a cube for the Whitney?) But the rest is MFG fantasy -- the powder blue banquettes, the orange trees, a broken plate oeuvre by Julian Schnabel (powder blue too), the waiters’ jellybean colored t-shirts, the fanciful pottery from Southern Italy with cute bunnies and smiling octopi. The folded napkin on top looks like a small cinnamon bun.

This is the pottery my friends and I all fell in love with and brought home from Campania decades ago.

          “We’re on the coast of Manhattan here, so it’s appropriate,” Zalaznick told the Times’ FloFab to explain the menu’s range of coastal cuisine from Liguria to Tuscany to Venice.  Everyone from the welcoming birds at the desk to our waitress and the sommelier seems happy too, as if we’re all on vacation.

Cured salmon with radish thins could use a citric boost.

          The point is, Santina is fun, from the Manganelli tequila fruit punch in its covered ceramic mug to the elegant cecina, chickpea flour crepes that arrive in a black iron pan on a powder blue cake stand with a choice of salsas. Savory lamb tartare and avocado dressed as they’d do it in Trapani, if they had avocado, are our picks. And there are house condiments, too: spicy salsa verde or a smurky tomato sofrito.

After all the food we ordered, we could have shared this chicken with guajillo peppers.

          We’re caught up in the euphoria, the pleasure of the raw giardinia crudité, comparing the sauces, loving or rejecting the torrid peppadew, stuffing or dipping luscious little furls of crepe -- my friend Bob calls for an encore. So it doesn’t matter that not everything on the rather concise menu is that wonderful.

The bass is nearly hidden by a flotilla of tomato, sweet peppers and orange slices.

          It’s briefly disappointing that the branzino crudo is rather limp and flavorless. And I can’t help but notice the rigatoni Norma is neither al dente nor forcefully sauced. Curls of cured salmon with radish slices  -- so stunning to look at -- could use a citric wakeup. The seafood fritto misto is fiercely salty, but it’s hot and so loaded with prizes -- fried lemon slices, fried leaves and bits of herbs -- that my pals are ecstatic, not minding the excessive salt, indeed, not even noticing it.

If only the rigatoni were al dente and the Norma sauce more inspired.

          But an $8 side of mushrooms is piled high with porcini -- meaty and voluptuous. There are slices of orange in the thick coverlet of tomato and sweet red peppers on the bass Agrigento, so sweet and fresh I don’t care all that much that the fish could be a touch less cooked. 

Another must: The $8 side of mushrooms is thrillingly meaty and voluptuous.

          Of course in this crowd, two of us are congenital over-orderers. If you start with the crudities, as you must, and move on to the compulsory chickpea crepes, you don’t really need the chicken with its guajillo chile heat or the lobster Catalan.

It’s isn’t often a chef invents a new dish: artichoke crisps with grapes and chopped hazelnuts.

          I chose “artichokes and grapes” for my second dish because I was curious. I’d never heard of that invention before, here on the seashore of Manhattan or anywhere along the coast of Italy. It was a surprisingly pleasing toss of crisp artichoke leaves, grapes and toasted hazelnuts, salted with anchovy aioli. How often does a chef create a new dish?

The orange cake is tough to cut with a fork. The oranges are salted.

          There is only brief resistance to the idea of dessert. But Elizabeth -- who stopped eating long before the wallowing rest of us began feeling pain -- insists.  She votes sanely for “Grapefruit Italian Ice,” but is overruled. I’m not going to say it’s flawed necessarily, but I do notice the orange cake I chose instead is oddly chewy and the beautiful, seedless orange slices alongside are salted.You may be more amused by this than I was.

The tropical frutta is a production number with powdered cocoa and sugar-salt-chile for dipping.

          Cubes of tropical frutta fresca -- pineapple, mango and melon -- come with a duo of dipping powders, cocoa and a mix of sugar, salt and chile. The second, applied sparingly, definitely works. And just a thought: Given all that glass, this may not be the spot for your secret affair.

It’s not like any restaurant you’ve ever seen in the city’s glorious dining out history.

820 Washington Street corner of Gansevoort under the Gansevoort entrance to the High Line Park. 212 254 3000. Breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10:30 am. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner Daily, 5:30 pm to midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 3:00 pm.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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