Graffit and the Cubist Foodist
Is there a more polarizing food than foam? Maybe tripe or liver, but what is it about a mound of tiny, flavored bubbles? Perhaps what incites groans and eye rolls isn't the froth itself but what it embodies—overly precious and theatrical cooking that makes a spectacle out of dining and leaves the customer perplexed. Those dirty words: molecular gastronomy.
At Graffit, a new eatery near Lincoln Center, foam decorates many plates, alongside "olive oil texture," "bell pepper caviar," and "Tio Pepe Fino air." The restaurant, run by Madrid's enfant terrible Jesús Núñez, takes a Modernist approach to Spanish fare. While not everything is a smash success, the food is playful and visually compelling. If you don't like experimental cuisine, though, stick to eating boneless, skinless chicken breast elsewhere.
Aesthetics play an important role because Núñez is a former graffiti artist (part of Spain's group 13). Which makes it somewhat surprising that he chose Chilean artist Dasic Fernández (and not himself) to spray-paint the restaurant's walls with scenes of Spanish life (including a matador and bull, flamenco dancers, and Núñez's girlfriend). The modern space is one you'd expect to see downtown, although the homogenous crowd quickly reminds you that you're on the Upper West Side.
Tapas are available in the front bar area, which seats about 30. Plop down on one of the bright orange plastic chairs and order the creamy ham croquettes ($8), deep fried empanadillas stuffed with scallops and mussels ($9), and the Manchego, Serrano ham, and asparagus sandwich ($10). This buttery, toasted triple-decker delight is a sucker punch of warm, oozing cheese—gourmet stoner grub with an Iberian influence. Less successful is the potato tortilla ($10). The "updated" omelet promises "different textures" but only recalls mashed potatoes with caramelized onions, served up in a martini glass.
You can eat more boldly in the main dining room, though the menu has its missteps (doughy squid spheres, I'm looking at you). Confit artichokes ($14) engage in a delicious ménage à trois with fat, briny clams and strips of salty Serrano ham. Another must-order is the "not your average egg" ($13). The pale orb nests on a bed of baby carrots, brussels sprouts, purple potatoes, and fuchsia-hued watermelon radishes. What makes it extraordinary? The white encasing the yolk isn't the albumen, but doctored cauliflower purée. This beauty in a bowl is the closest you can get to springtime until the weather warms.
Rainbow scallops ($24) show off Núñez's playful spirit. Each mollusk is marinated in a flavoring (squid ink, saffron, pimentón, beets), rendering it jet-black, yellow, orange, or magenta. Along with the herbed and asparagus-flavored green rice, you've got Kandinsky on a plate. Still, crap is often mistaken for creativity. The $25 beef cheeks with banana polenta is a study in Cubism. Literally—every element on the plate is perfectly square, the cheeks molded using meat glue. But it's about as tasty and well-conceived as your first Easy Bake Oven creation (your mom lied when she said it was delicious).
Come dessert, order the pretentiously named "a study of Spanish Moscatel" ($10), which is what Seurat would come up with if he was asked to create a Pointillist jello shot. The wine is gelatinized and allowed to firm in the depression of a plate. Flavored purées and cubed fruits are dotted along the surface, half representing the wine's nose (almond, basil, orange peel) and half its flavors (strawberry, raspberry, pineapple). It's not a dessert you'd crave regularly, but it is visually arresting and very memorable. Gelatin also figures into the shell of the transparent cannelloni ($10), but skip this odd, tasteless concoction and go for the cheesecake ($10), wrapped in a berry coating and garnished with dehydrated strawberry chips.
As a critic, nothing bores me more than visiting a new restaurant only to encounter the same old menu of tuna tartare, steak, and molten chocolate cake. Graffit is challenging and not always delicious, but it is exciting because it paints a new culinary picture. New York's foodscape is brighter with Núñez here—and certainly more colorful.
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