I first wandered into Can five or six years back to grab a quick bite with a girlfriend. The Asian-French menu looked promising, recalling the late and lamented La Maison Japonaise, which introduced this fusion style to Gotham in the early '80s. Somewhat to our surprise, the food lived up to that innovative and palate-pampering forebear.
In the intervening years, however, Can fell below the foodie radar. While making my reservation, I noted that it had garnered good to very good ratings in the 1994 Zagat, yet was not even listed in the 2001. Granted, the redecorated front room featured low tables topped with Moroccan-style brass trays, imparting a Middle Eastern appearance at variance with the pan-Asian menu, the throb of the sound system didn't seem like dinner music to me, and all told the two-level main room seemed a little tired. What had happened? Why was it empty when all around it joints were jumping?
But at least the menu seemed unchanged, so when a solicitous waiter arrived to take our order, we forged aheadchicken sate ($6.95) for me and a side order of mustard greens ($8.95) for my Southern friend. Beyoncé was being a survivor on the box by the time the food arrived. The meat-ladened skewers fanned out under a creamy peanut sauce with just the slightest hint of chile were as good as recalled, and the greens were something special. Served in their own mini-wok, they looked more like baby bok choy, but after a bite we didn't quibble, 'cause the tender verdant leaves with a zap of ginger and garlic were just the ticket.
Our mains kept our faces happy. My two slabs of airy Chilean sea bass kissed atop a mound of what this time we were sure was baby bok choy, punctuated with a smoky hint of shiitake. The whole was napped with a ginger and scallion infusion lighter than, yet as flavorful as, my Chinese favorite ($21.95). A side of crispy string beans did an awesome job of playing all the hot, sour, salty, and sweet notes ($8.95). The mix of white and black sesame seeds that coated my companion's snapper was toasted to a nutty crispness, and its drizzle of lightly soy-based jus was the perfect complement to the spinach and asparagus that accompanied it ($19.95). Keeping it simple for dessert, we sampled all the flavors in a bowl of black currant and white peach sorbet with white chocolate and caramel ice cream ($8.50), and left wondering why there were so few diners when the food was so good.
Can was still empty and still surviving a few weeks later. This time we headed to the sate straight off and accompanied it with an order of vegetable raviolilittle pillows of steamed dough filled with shards of jicama, carrot, snow peas, and spinach that came with a tangy soy-sake dipping sauce ($5.95). Professionally obliged to double-check for consistency, I forced myself to order the incredible sea bass, which passed the test. One guest selected the mango chicken and was rewarded with an array of petal-like chicken scallops served in a mango shell and topped with a saffron-hued sweet-and-sour sauce that lived up to a billing so often rendered as glop that we've forgotten how delicate the idea is ($16.95). Another hooked the pan-seared salmon on an inky mound of squid-darkened pasta that came topped with habit-forming chips of what we thought was taro (19.95). Too filled to even consider dessert, we headed to the street humming "Survivor," an appropriate theme song for this Can that can. Get there yourself before it's discovered again.
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