December 14, 2015 | BITE: My Journal

Baiting the Hook for Theo’s

 Theo is home from Greece to run Theo’s with his coffee shop titan dad, Peter Katsihtis.
Theo is home from Greece to run Theo’s with his coffee shop titan dad, Peter Katsihtis.

          I hesitate to suggest that dinner at Theo’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar is beside the point. For the mid-upper East Side, a neighborhood that craves restaurant brilliance and welcomes a reasonable effort, Theo’s existence is cause enough to rejoice.

Easy to peel away some of the fat from this fine Mangalitsa pork belly with pickled mustard seed.

          But for me, the cast of characters is even more compelling than the dramatic and luscious beet-cured steelhead trout with smoked roe and red sorrel or the rich, glazed Mangalitsa pork belly. Though I only get one fragrant and fatty mouthful to swoon over since, as usual, we are sharing.

No way can chef-wanderer Ryan Skeen miss seeing me from his post in the open kitchen.

          There is chef Ryan Skeen to start with. He comes with a curse: He never stays long. I tooted his prowess in assorted zip codes  -- at Irving Mill and 5 & Diamond and seconding Michael Psilakis (an equally wanton wanderer) at Fish Tag. Most recently, he metastasized at Church Street Tavern. (No wonder I haven’t gotten bored eating out eight nights a week for 45 years.)

Here’s another gift from the kitchen: beet-cured Steelhead trout with smoked roe and shaved radish.

          At least till Skeen’s allegiance wanes, I know there will be delicious surprises, like tonight’s fresh and “rarish” swordfish, almost sweet against the vegetal toss of Brussels sprouts, piquillo peppers, and maitake mushrooms under a ruffle of frisée. And the rich, dark, lardon-perfumed short rib bourguignon.

It’s not often swordfish tastes as fresh and gently cooked as this from chef de cuisine Brian McCaffrey.

          Then there is the touching generational saga. Coffee shop tycoon Peter Katsihtis – operator of popular Viand on both Lexington Avenue and Broadway, Astro on Sixth, and Park Café on Seventh – wrangling this spot to launch his 21-year-old son Theo’s feeding career. The offshoot is easy to spot. It’s rare to see local progeny glowing this fresh and innocent.

Smoked carrots and other root veggies pile atop delicious short rib bourguignon.

          “They sent me to Greece,” Theo explains, introducing himself to our table. He wears a very short vest and ribbons on his rolled-up sleeves, as if at any moment he might whirl off in a dance. If only I were 40 again. He would be perfect.

Veiled chandeliers and antique etched mirror transform this double height room.

          And, of course, there is the gorilla in the room who’s not actually in the room, but whose name is etched dozens of times in the frieze of this gorgeous double-height glass orangerie. Trump. Trump. Trump. That chorus leaves room for only one “Theo,” right over the door.

White orchids are grandiloquent, but not big enough for a restaurant critic to hide in.

          If Theo had a dowry this would be it, no expense spared: glorious chandeliers wrapped in sheer veils, antique acid-etched mirrors over the open kitchen, a cushy lounge with pillows and slate-topped bar to the right of the entrance, black leather banquettes, and white orchids on the tables (pressed surprisingly close).

Crab and ricotta gnudi float in a puddle touched with sea urchin and Peruvian yellow pepper.

          It seems maître d’ Sebastian recognizes me. That’s why he settles us so close to the kitchen. The orchids are lush, but not big enough to hide in. Skeen waves hello and sends out extra crudos to follow the salmon rillettes amuse. Not everything is as sensuous as the crab and ricotta gnudi sprinkled with paprika in a puddle colored bright yellow by Peruivian amarillo peppers and touched with uni.

A swatch of sesame puree tastes beige and does nothing for a lively toss of tuna tartare and avocado. 

          Bits of lime add zest to cubes of tuna and avocado tartare, but the bold swoosh of sesame purée alongside, dull and tasting beige, does nothing for the dish. Hamachi crudo doesn’t get much love from coconut vinaigrette, shishito peppers, and grapefruit pulp either.  

Cool tendrils of Hamachi crudo are heaped alongside coconut vinaigrette with shishitos and grapefruit.

          No way can a couple of peeled egg tomatoes and an ooze of tahini lime sauce rescue a very unexciting filet of red snapper sitting on an ugly thatch of kale. All of us are excited to see wild mushroom spaetzle on the menu. But don’t count me as a trustworthy judge, given that it’s covered with $64 worth of white truffle, gift of Mr. Skeen.

Under all that truffle gift are wild mushroom spaetzle with pea shoots, fines herbs, and parmesan brood.

          The house fries are quite good and small Brussels sprouts – with smoked, salted almonds – are neither mushy nor rawish. That’s unusual given how many chefs seem to think vegetables should be blanched but not cooked.

Two sides: Small sprouts properly cooked with chopped smoked almond bits and very good fries.

          Is the full house a surprise? Our waiter flits everywhere in the room but never notices my arm waving frantically for attention. Valrhona pot de crème and wonderful berries on lemon posset are two desserts the kitchen can do nicely without a pastry chef. But the cookies are very amateurish.  It’s not that early, but too early to judge Theo, I decide.

You don’t need a pastry chef to turn out great berries on lemon posset.

          On a second visit a month later, four of us are shoehorned into the same stage-side table with no sign of Skeen in the kitchen. Gone already? “No, just took a night off,” Sebastian insists. Two local couples slip into the only seats at the counter, knowing it’s the spot to provoke improvisation from the kitchen.

Salmon rillettes comes as the usual amuse but you might get arancini too.

          Skeen’s right hand, Brian McCaffrey, throws in four arancini with the salmon rillettes amuse for our table. And that's the night of the fabulous swordfish and the irresistible short ribs. Peter, our cocktail adept, likes his Picarta (house-infused jalapeño tequila with agave and lime and a powdered sumac rim. The bar takes so long with his second, it arrives after dinner is cleared.

House-made potato chips and lightly pickled mushrooms come with steak tartare.

          But when my friend Belle spies what look like home-made chips in the kitchen and asks to sample a few, the waiter brings the whole dish – beef tartare buried in house-fried chips. Lightly pickled mushrooms in a little dish alongside tame the sweetness of the meat piled on your chip.

Valrhona chocolate pot de crème is one of three options on the earliest dessert list.

          The menu stresses the raw bar and emphasizes the aquatic – salmon, cod, scallops, fried mussels.

          But the house is ready for grazing. At Irving Mill, Skeen’s flap burger made headlines. Here he ages the beef in-house and grinds it himself. Surely, there is an unexpected ingredient. I’ll be by again to see.

Not much to say about cookies and ice cream. The chocolate chip flats are still warm from the oven.

          Given that one-bedroom co-op apartments in Donald’s building above start at $1.495,000, I’m guessing this is a neighborhood that can handle appetizers priced from $17 to $25 and entrées up to $85 for a Wagyu strip. My Upper East Side pals say they’ll be back. There’s nothing else quite like it around.

1048 Third Avenue on the SW corner of 62nd Street. 917 475 1721. Dinner 5 till 10:45 pm. Bar menu 3 pm to 4:45. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 3:30 pm.



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

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