Even though charred vegetables seem to pop up everywhere these days, the act of grilling lettuce always winds up sounding like something Guy Fieri would dare Bobby Flay to do. Yet the pair of split and singed little-gem heads at Blake Lane are far from a lark for the taste buds that come into contact with them. The palm-size halves wind up slightly wilted at the center, still a little crisp, and deliberately burnt at the edges, which imparts earthy notes to the lettuce’s inherent grassiness. Dunked into spicy avocado dip and anointed with a squeeze of lime, they make for a virtuous and stealthily flavorful $8 snack.
Other equally clever and salubrious ways to kick off dinner at this fashionable all-day Upper East Side café include beet-pickled deviled eggs with aioli-enriched yolks and poached turmeric chicken lettuce cups layered with cilantro and slivers of jalapeño then lashed with savory yogurt. Typically boring broccoli takes an unexpected turn as a jumble of seared florets and crunchy leaves sprinkled with black sesame seeds and sitting in a rich and silky chile-oil-laced cashew butter. This is healthy cooking with purpose and poise, thoughtfully executed by Diego Moya, who first met Blake Lane’s owner, accountant-turned-nutritionist Suzanna Beall, and her husband, Sandy (restaurant investor and Ruby Tuesday founder), as the sous-chef of Mario Batali’s innovative modern-Spanish stalwart Casa Mono.
Accordingly, there’s real skill in the way Moya puts together his reasonably priced tapas-like small plates (all under $16), like rounds of charred boniato sweet potatoes doused with a vanilla–dried cherry vinaigrette that suggests some sublime soda fountain. The scorched Caribbean spuds have a fluffy, pale interior and a mild flavor that make them a prime canvas for the fruity dressing, crumbles of feta cheese, and coarsely chopped holy basil. And even if you’ve tired of toasts, you really ought to give Blake Lane’s crunchy sourdough a whirl. During the day, you’ll find slices topped with mashed avocado, which gets a boost from charred scallion oil and pickled onions, and kabocha squash lent a kick from fruity aleppo pepper. Dinnertime is when the kitchen gets positively freaky with a yellowfin tuna toast, tossing cubes of raw fish with a brilliant salsa verde assembled from shaved broccoli tips ground with sprouted pumpkin seeds, so that the cruciferous plant is used “almost like a vegetable-herb,” Moya says.
“The menu reflects how I like to eat every day,” Beall relays to the Voice, clarifying that that means an “eclectic variety” that’s “kind of all over the place.” Within that context, the chef also has a knack for reusing and reimagining flavors. To wit: Kabocha squash shows up in a baby kale salad, and gets puréed for a soup drizzled with cilantro-heavy Moroccan chermoula oil. While eating the latter, drag your spoon through an artful swoosh of sweetly nutty beet tahini painted around the edge of the bowl. Moya coaxes the vividly magenta condiment into a pinwheel design as the base of his poached-trout-topped “brassica bowl” entrée, which brings together brussels sprouts, sautéed kale, and broccoli.
None of the neighborhood-friendly Blake Lane’s main courses exceeds $25, which will fetch you a nicely cooked grass-fed hanger steak offset by roasted cauliflower and purple potatoes tossed ingeniously in mutedly briny and creamy tonnato sauce. Aside from his knack for vegetables, Moya’s proficiency with seafood also jibes with Beall’s health-focused, “California inspired” ethos and produces some of the best dishes here. Crisp-skinned wild sea trout arches over black rice and a vibrantly flavored green curry the chef seasons with raw kale, tamarind, and fish sauce. And a kaleidoscopic arrangement of carrot-sesame purée and thinly sliced raw carrots, watermelon radish, and blood orange act as a canopy for fleshy pan-roasted wild cod. Meanwhile, confit chicken, bathed in mustard-sherry jus alongside sautéed collard greens, and creole-spiced shrimp laid over roasted tomato stew — both served atop brown rice — eat like grain bowls with gravitas.
The narrow dining room, simply populated with blond-wood furniture and swathed in exposed brick and white subway tiles, manages to come across as airy underneath rows of hanging diffused-bulb Edison lights. At night, a sign bearing the restaurant’s name beckons passing eyeballs in hot-pink neon, which casts a blush over the sea of tables up front. Beall tells the Voice that she jumped on the space when it became available, adding that the place, which opened in November, came together almost “spur of the moment.” You wouldn’t know it from how smoothly things run, and it makes a critic wonder if the courteous, accommodating service is because everyone — the mixture of seasoned Upper East Siders and their millennial neighbors included — is so hopped up on açai smoothies, shrubs, tonics, and turmeric drinks.
Pudding-like ganache studded with berries is the better of the two decent chocolate desserts. The other is a somewhat dry gluten-free cake made using whole boiled oranges blended with almond flour, eggs, and mild Dutch-process cocoa; it’s the only thing here that truly tastes like “health food” in the derogatory sense. There are chocolate chips in the batter, which help, but it could use avocado or even yogurt to soften it up a bit. Until it’s tinkered with, opt instead for Moya’s dense olive oil cake, which he doles out in squat wedges next to dollops of unsweetened mascarpone. It’s the polar opposite of that chocolate-orange slab, and after I’d inadvertently hogged a slice one evening I consoled myself by worrying aloud, “I’m sure it’s full of good fats.”
1429 Third Avenue, 212-988-4700