Mehtaphor is one of those restaurants that manages to be endearing, despite its odd annoyances. I’ll get to those in a moment, but let’s focus on the positive.
Jehangir Mehta is a former pastry chef who has worked at Jean Georges, Mercer Kitchen, and about a dozen other places. Three years ago, he oppened Graffiti in the East Village, a quirky little Asian Fusian restaurant that earned a steady following in a space described as “lilliputian” and “comically small.”
I never went to Grafitti because the size made it awkward for me.
If I went alone, I didn’t want to sit at a table with other people.
And if I went with a date, I CERTAINLY didn’t want to sit at a table with other people.
At Mehtaphor, the chef has room to breathe. Yes, there’s a long communal table, but there is also a bar, and there are two-tops, and four-tops. It is still a small restaurant, but no longer comically so.
What is comical is the service, clearly with an over-abundance of students who have never worked in restaurants before. One will open and pour the bottle of wine you just ordered, and then ask if you’d like a martini. Another will try to clear a teeter-tottering pile of plates and silverware, and then drop stuff.
Most of the menus have burn marks and grease stains on them. Yet, when I tried to take one home, the hostess begged me not to: “We are running out, and the printer has no ink.” Finally, she found one with three burn marks that she decided the restaurant could part with.
The food is inexpensive, although priced a shade higher than at Graffiti. It’s mostly good, in a quirky way, without duplicating dishes you’ve seen in a hundred other places. The menu is a model of austere simplicity, with categories captioned “$ NINE” (three items), “$ TWELVE” (three), “$ SEVENTEEN” (six), and “$ SEVEN” (eight).
Except for the last category, which are clearly desserts, the line between appetizers and entrées is blurry. Everything is served family style, and plates are not replaced until you ask them to. The server suggested that four plates would be about right for two people (which it was).
Our first two dishes showed off the chef’s talent for mixing sweet and savory. A fine Beef Tartare ($12; above left) was enhanced by a guacamole sorbet. Shaved Foie Gras ($12; above right) was served with a raspberry compote. The walnut salad that came with the foie gras was pedestrian, and we couldn’t fathom the logic of serving three slices of toast: two or four would make much more sense.
We loved the Goat Cheese Crab Pizza ($12; above left), made with a light pastry crust. A Chili Ribeye ($17; above right) was not bad for the price.
You’d expect an ex-pastry chef to get the desserts right. A Hazelnut Soufflé ($7; above left) was excellent, but a tiny scoop of vanilla rum raisin ice cream seems a bit stingy. Unbidden, the kitchen sent out a second scoop.
The wine list is a lot like the menu: there are just two categories: “$ THIRTY” and “$ FORTY-FIVE” with a total of eleven choices, all available by the glass as well ($9/12). The 2007 Beckmen Vinyards Grenache ($45) was the only bottle younger than 2008, but it was certainly drinkable.
The restaurant is in the Duane Street Hotel, one of many boutiques that have sprung up in the area. The hotel has been around for three years; it previously had another restaurant, Beca, that attracted no critical attention. Mehtaphor, I think it is obvious, hopes to pull in more than just hotel guests, and at least when we were there, it had clearly succeeded.
Despite a few service oddities, dinner for two was just $136, including tax and tip. Anytime a restaurant can do that, and serve food as enjoyable as Mehtaphor does, I am happy to endorse it.
Mehtaphor (130 Duane Street at Church Street in the Duane Street Hotel, Tribeca)