“So, do you want a baby because all of your friends have babies?”
There’s nothing quite like eavesdropping on a middle-aged Tinder date for an evening’s dining entertainment. Less salacious than a night at The Box and with more jousting than Medieval Times (in this case, emotional), it is perhaps only bested by a night at Sammy’s Roumanian spent dancing and hollering with resident party animal Dani Luv.
This was my colorful company at Tessa (349 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-390-1974), the new Mediterranean restaurant from Larry Bellone and chef Cedric Tovar, who previously cooked at Bobo, Rosemary’s, and Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria. The design is dramatic for the zip code, with brick walls offset by accordion-style iron security gates. The industrial touch features heavily in the interior design, with gates wrapped around a candy cane-shaped bar, used as wall sconces and running along the ceiling. There’s plenty of natural wood as well — the planks highlight a staircase leading down to the bathrooms and a small but attractive open basement kitchen. Putting money into an open kitchen that only ever catches people’s eyes to and from using the restroom seems like a strange choice, but in doing so, Tovar and his team have become part of the aesthetic. (Plus, it must beat cooking while being sealed away behind a subterranean wall, swinging doors your only connection to the outside world.) The dining room stretches back 70 seats, ending in a spare private dining room that, thanks to open doorways, won’t shield you from the decibels this place racks up.
When the sun sets, Tessa employs lighting that might be described as atmospheric, so please excuse the crummy photos. Two bartenders run the show with a bar-back, but the counter is expansive enough that they could stand to add another. When things get busy, as they did on a recent weekend night, the good people behind the stick are clearly getting swamped.
Tovar’s menu begins with a selection of small plates, including an arrangement of tomatoes, arugula, and burrata cheese ($13) doused in aged balsamic, and a bright cauliflower salad ($8) that pairs the still crunchy brassicas with golden raisins, pickled red onions, and toasted almonds. The florets get extra bite from punchy coriander vinaigrette. There’s also complimentary bread, chewy and studded with olives. Butter gets a sprinkling of smoked paprika and a coat of olive oil.
Pastas and risottos are available in small or large portions. This modest tangle of al dente linguine ($11, $16 for large) comes laced with Tasmanian pepper, lemon and crunchy granules of parmesan basil breadcrumbs. Straightforward and well-executed, it joins more ambitious expressions of cargo-hydration like cavatelli with pancetta and rabbit ragu ($16/$26) and rough cut spaccatelli pungent with tarragon emulsion, chanterelles, and lobster ($19/$29).
Among the appetizers, there’s spring vegetable soup ($11), raw preparations of seafood (razor clam escabeche, $14) and meat (venison carpaccio, $16), and heartier dishes like braised pork belly Provençale ($15), where incredibly soft squares of bacon share an oblong bowl with roasted tomatoes, melting confit turnips, and a dark garlic pork jus. A scattering of root vegetable chips provides the only contrasting texture.
Grilled items get their own entree section, including a cheffed-up burger ($19) laced with pancetta and topped with taleggio cheese, slow-roasted leg of lamb with zucchini succotash ($28), and gremolata-topped swordfish ($31). The other main courses are split between land and sea. There’s braised pork cheeks over parmesan polenta ($27), and roasted monkfish ($27) served with lentil and quinoa pilaf.
Desserts ($11) are the work of Karys Logue, a vet of Cafe Boulud — and you can tell her training has been top-notch. Compositions like coffee pot de creme with milk sorbet and cardamom sablé exude a mod-iterranean playfulness. Logue applies brash plating to poached rhubarb with globs of elderflower jelly, sheep’s milk frozen yogurt, and a sponge cake fortified with wheat bran and cinnamon. It’s wild shape comes from charging the batter in a cream whipper and then baking the cakes in a microwave. Eating it is as fun as a springtime walk in nearby Central Park.