Guernica has some witty notions. Instead of occupying indentations in a round metal tray, escargots ($9) arrive in a basket whittled from a crusty baguette, tumbling over the sides in a cascade of parsley butter. You could throw away the mollusks and be perfectly happy eating the flavor-soaked bread. Named after a painting by an early disciple of Keith Haring, Guernica occupies a large room along a classy strip of Avenue B, a letter that increasingly stands for “bistro.” (Giuliani—you’re missing a photo op by not jumping on this.) The fiercely rectangular space is shrouded in subdued browns, but luckily the architect relieves the boxiness with a few curves here and there. The fundamental darkness of the room is unrelieved by a network of metal lighting sculptures representing branches and leaves cast in tortured patterns. Bring a flashlight.
The restaurant has plenty of other nifty ideas as well, most not original. The wine list consists exclusively of $19 bottles (à la Becco). Some are quite good, including Bodega Norton Malbec, a dusky Argentine red with a bold, acidic flavor that goes well with the more intense dishes, like the grilled jerk shrimp ($19). Each crustacean plops on a hillock of puréed sweet potatoes garnished with a plantain chip. The shrimp are plump and spicy, but the puree is too sweet by a mile. The dish is saved by another of the restaurant’s innovations: every main course is available in two sizes, “tasting” and “entrée.” The tasting of three ($10) is plenty.
The menu makes extensive use of bread. In addition to the escargots, there’s a standard plate of bruschetta, and an appetizer of foie gras newtons ($9) that squirts bland mousse into bready cylinders that look like maki rolls. Absurdly topped with fig jam, they do indeed taste like fig newtons, but why not splurge on a box of the real thing? Other appetizers include a shrimp cocktail ($14)—three steamed and one fried—served in the now standard martini glass, and an easily shareable cheese and charcuterie platter ($12) that’s long on volume but a little short on quality. The biggest hit one evening was a “carpaccio” of portobellos ($8), the razor-thin slices pinwheeled on the plate, damp and woodsy. The dribbled aioli was a welcome addition, although the advertised truffle essence seemed a figment of the menu writer’s imagination.
The badly named steakhouse sampler ($21, $11) is really just one kind of steak—a marvelous coarse-textured skirt, gravied and positioned on a series of mashed-potato mounds. Between spud and skirt are layers of creamed spinach and deep-fried onion, the latter threatening to ruin the dish by becoming repulsively soggy. Ask to have it served on the side. The most straightforwardly good entrée is three planks of pan-fried sea bass that come in a light herb infusion ($17, $9), the biggest bomb is a dull squash risotto topped with shreds of dry duck confit, presented a bit too cleverly on six Chinese restaurant spoons.
My favorite invention, however, is the “chef’s potato sampler” ($8), including home fries, olive-oiled ‘tater tots, a dainty potato pancake, and mashed potatoes festooned with french fries. Proving once and for all that the wise old ground apple can endure any cooking-school assault.