It's clear that this is a special place from the moment you descend into the monastic dining room, where flickering lights, muted colors, and burnished woods create the jewel box in which chef Diane Forley displays her culinary treasures. What's that in the air? It's the ineffable scent of grasses and rootsa pinch of lavender, a hint of chamomile, and a top note of verbena, the herb that gives its name to this Irving Place sanctuary.
Verbena also brackets the menu here. Those in the know begin regally with a verbena royale ($9.75), a syrup of the lemony leaf combined with herbally citrus Lillet, topped with champagne, and served in a flute with a swirl of orange zest. They finish with the verbena sampler ($9), which includes a small glass of fragrant crème brûlée with the crisp topping served separately as a wafer, a thick slice of a moist, verbena-scented tea cake, and a palate-cleansing miniscoop of intensely aromatic sorbet counterweighted with three plump blueberries. There's even a gift box of leafy products, tea, tea cake, syrup, and chocolates ($25).
Not all here is perfumed with the scent of Lippia citriodora. Taking a page from a medieval botanical, Forley's kitchen celebrates the subtle tastes of nature's underutilized ingredients. Millet, one of the world's oldest grains, adds an understated nuttiness to the filling of the bacon-wrapped saddle of rabbit and harmonizes with the slurry of pumpkin seeds in the puddle of dark, rich mole ($25). Mexican flavors dominate the juicy wild striped bass with tomatillo and accent the accompanying avocado's unctuousness with a cilantro crème fraîche ($27). The perfectly pink baby rack of lamb boasts just enough fat for crispness and punctuates the bland smoothness of a green split pea mash with pungent mustard oil that packs the wallop of wasabi ($33).
Where in so many kitchens you get superb mains or superb appetizers but not both, the starters are also splendid here. Sugary, succulently granular black Mission figs are split, filled with creamy Roquefort cheese, and served with thin slices of flavorful prosciutto ($14.50). Lightly fried fresh sardines sit atop a bed of delicate lamb's-quarter lettuce ($12), while a perfumy melon chutney pairs perfectly with the creaminess of the foie gras terrine ($17).
This wealth of dishes makes selection difficult, but two five-course, half-portion tasting menus aid those who wish to sample. One features meats and fish, the other accents things vegetarian. They include off-the-menu celebrations of taste like a fallen spinach soufflé in a tangy sorrel sauce and a creamy polenta topped with plump fresh fava beans and a squash blossom afloat in a broth of chamomile that Peter Rabbit would have lapped up ($65 carnivore, $52 veggie; until 6:30, pretheater four-course tasting menus are also available).
Even the desserts get into the act: a raspberry parfait with a pudding redolent of elderflowers, or a tart of roasted apricots that extended the Middle Eastern theme with honey mousse and pistachios (all desserts $9). I preferred to stay the course and end simply with a few scoops of the sublime lemon verbena sorbet, which always catches me unawares, like the scent of a forgotten rose tucked into the pages of an old tome. Light and cleansing, yet potent, it's the quintessence of Verbena.
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