François Payard is famous for his pastry. He started out as the pastry chef at Daniel, but in 1997 established his own Upper East Side patisserie featuring endless display cabinets of dark chocolates, tiered cakes, baguette sandwiches, and especially, creative and colorful pastries rivaling rococo architecture in their detail. Merely looking at them induced delight. At the rear of the shop was an expensive bistro, offering a solid French menu of braised lamb shank, foie gras terrine, sautéed skate wing, and bouillabaisse. Eventually another branch opened in Brazil.
Nowadays no chef is content with only one or two establishments. And so Payard ventured downtown (where else?) and opened a new restaurant on Mott Street with the punning name of In Tent. A walk through a nondescript bar past a slender open kitchen—where chef Craig Freeman and his crew stand shoulder to shoulder, busily at work—leads to a rear dining room tricked out with North African artifacts. Attempts to make the place look like an actual tent are halfhearted, confined to a few strips of bronze-colored cloth flapping near the ceiling. No matter—the room is comfortable and relatively serene. A communal table bisects the space, and a dessert prep area at one end is the room’s inadvertent focus, where two pastry chefs methodically assemble desserts to order ($9.50 each). Though there are no actual pastries (sniff!), the best mimics a pastry: a miraculous fruit salad shaped like a round tart, tightly ringed with sliced figs and underpinned with peaches. Blueberry-dotted watermelon ice is heaped in the center. It’s a supremely refreshing end to a meal.
While the 1990s gave us Pacific Rim fusion, the new millennium belongs to reconstructed Mediterranean fare. Thus among the entrées we have paella ($23), but how could In Tent’s rival the massive lush productions of Village Spanish restaurants? It can’t. Paella is all about the rice, but contemporary anti-starch mania has left us with a small layer beneath a parsed collection of clams, mussels, shrimp, and chicken that manages to satisfy without seeming generous. The Tunisian pastry called brik has been expropriated as a crust for a daurade fillet ($21), which angles like a beached skiff atop an herby dune of mashed potatoes. Hey, I miss the runny egg inside the conventional brik.
There are a couple of stunning entrées—a tajine of eggplant laced with pignoli nuts and raisins on a bed of lemony couscous, and a lamb burger ($22) that rivals DB Bistro’s in oozy deliciousness, pressed between Frisbees of olive bread. Alongside come some wonderful “zucchini fries,” which are like twisty french fries, only better. Among the appetizers is a delicious cod carpaccio ($10), confusingly referred to as “bacalao,” which usually means salt cod. No matter, it looks like a Christmas bush ornamented with green onion and red pimento. Ringed with olive emulsion, the carpaccio is so good it will leave you scraping the last morsels from your plate.
Also mimicking a pastry is a curried crab Napoleon, which in the modern fashion is not really a Napoleon at all, but a crabmeat salad haphazardly mounded between potato chips. As a substitute for layers of French pastry, the chips are not really bad, but when you expect a great pastry, you expect a great pastry—especially when the restaurateur is named Payard.