By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Yank! The white tablecloths that previously set a formal tone at Avenue 5 have disappeared with the precision of a magic act. Gone too are the upholstered couches near the front door, which gave visitors a prim first impression. They’ve been replaced by high tops, from which a posse of cheerful imbibers broke into occasional drinking songs during our recent visit. Amazingly, it wasn’t the Avenue 5 I remembered when forking serenely through beef carpaccio a few years ago.
“People would look inside and think they couldn’t come in wearing jeans,” chef-owner Colin MacLaggan said, explaining why it was time to put a casual spin on his five-year-old restaurant. “We used to be caviar, foie gras and white linens, but we’re shaking that stigma,” he said.
MacLaggan still adheres to raising the bar in his cuisine by presenting dishes that are more unique and elegant than ever. In doing so, he’s mastered a few tricks in molecular gastronomy, as we encountered throughout our savory courses and in a couple of complex desserts.
From the appetizer list, “ravioli with grapes” snatched our curiosity. Would the grapes constitute the filling? Or would they be served in small bunches alongside? Neither was the case. Instead, a few halves of the fruit were dotted with sweet Madeira cream sauce, which seemed to be infused with a subtle grape flavor. Inside the ravioli was an earthy mushroom pesto. Corn and fresh arugula accented these mouth-watering specimens, which came three to an order. We so badly wished there were four.
Before proceeding to salads, my companion sipped on a sprightly cranberry mojito, which paled in comparison to the visual drama associated with my Cuban martini. The glass arrived empty of liquid, starting out with only a puff of cotton candy brimming over the rim. Then, within a split second, the sugar cloud collapsed into nothingness as our waiter poured a mixture of dark rum and sparkling wine over it. The residual sugar scored well with the drink’s additional ingredients of mint and lime juice.
My companion’s goat cheese salad marked our first encounter with MacLaggan’s penchant for molecular gastronomy, a not-so-new cooking trend that applies benign chemicals to foods for changing their basic structures and properties. Case in point: the goat cheese spheres draped over the salad’s heirloom beets and tangerine sections were seamless and filled with liquefied goat curds so milky and flavorful, we knew it wasn’t natural. (The result of sodium alginate, perhaps?) My grilled hearts of romaine were less mysterious, with the slightly charred leaves imparting warmth to the Parmesan and creamy Caesar dressing.
Then came the foam, a tasty plop of curry-flavored suds that turned our bowls of humble cauliflower soup into a molecularly charged gourmet experience. Foams have fallen largely to the wayside within chef circles, but when employed sensibly like this, I’m a proponent.
From the chef’s roster of small plates, each priced at $7, you’ll find cured meats and European cheeses along with dry-cured pork shoulder, ginger-spiked vegan chili and simplistic garlic shrimp swimming in a drinkable pond of butter and lemon juice. With his renewed focus on the bar area, MacLaggan said he knew he couldn’t do without a menu of dainty pickings.
Our entrees featured a slab of tastefully grilled Atlantic salmon perfumed by cardamom, ginger and shaved fennel. Fluffy red quinoa served alongside turned the meal into a healthy, guiltless winner. A heftier rush of flavors arose from ancho-glazed short ribs. The super-tender meat, draped in the dark chili glaze using veal stock, was accompanied by a cornmeal-crusted Relleno that proved a refreshing departure from the egg-battered Rellenos found at neighborhood taco stands. Here, the filling was a smooth puree of shrimp and (I think) some cheese and cilantro. All combined, it was a snappy, 21st century interpretation of surf and turf.
Our desserts resembled something out of a science lab, starting with banana-lime panna cotta hiding Pop Rocks that snapped and crackled upon hitting the tongue. The creation was augmented by a eucalyptus-infused sambuca “cloud” that was airier than meringue. Equally dazzling was a slice of rum and poppy seed parfait that barely melted. Made in a terrine, it was adorned with freeze-dried tapioca, crystallized rose petals and prickly pear “yolks” that seemingly oozed more liquid than their tiny casings could accommodate. Calcium lactate and xanthan gum were among the cooking agents that MacLaggan rattled off as we strained our brains for technique clues. But we surrendered to our palates in the end, leaving with enthusiasm over Avenue 5’s livelier ambiance and pluckier meal preparations.
Avenue 5 Restaurant & Bar
2760 Fifth Ave. (Bankers Hill)
Prices: Appetizers and small plates, $7 to $14; entrees, $12 to $25