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Restaurant Review: OII

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The Culinary Expressionist

 

Beacon gets a place that serves food as artful as what’s hanging at the galleries nearby 

 

By Jorge S. Arango

 

When I asked our waitress at OII in Beacon if the paintings on display were always by local artists, she replied, “Well, they’re Beacon­esque,” by which she meant that the pool of talent extended beyond the city’s borders. But then came a clarification, though I wasn’t sure if it referred to the artists who show at OII or the crowd that eats and drinks there. “You know,” she confided, “there are the people who live in Beacon, and the people who act like they live in Beacon.”

 

When a town spawns its wannabes and pretenders, you know it’s progressing nicely along its path toward hip art mecca, a journey that began with the opening of Dia:Beacon in 2002. And I’m happy to report that the city’s ever-growing art crowd finally has a place to eat that matches its own sophistication and its sense of pushing boundaries, both aesthetic and cultural. Prior to the opening of OII last October, my favorite place in Beacon was BJ’s, the no-frills soul food joint that, by its utter lack of pretension, has been kicking the gentrification trend in its rarefied behind.

 

Here’s how OII got its odd name: David Perlman, the owner and chef, supposedly exclaimed “O, wow! This is perfect,” when he saw another space a year before. He planned to name the restaurant O, but when that deal fell through, he found the second and present location, which he named OII.

 

Amazingly, Perlman is a self-taught chef. He’s spent 25 years in the biz (often as owner, investor, chef, or any combination thereof) at places like Ruelles and Birdland in New York, and Moonfish on Washington State’s Bainbridge Island. He has obviously been paying attention to his mentors along the way and cultivating his own sense of wild experimentation (though he’s careful to credit his sous-chef, Adam Sternberg, as a “driving force” in the kitchen). What emerges from that kitchen are a lot of contrasting flavors and textures — creamy with crunchy, spicy with cool, cold with hot. Almost always it pays off in spades.

 

The surroundings are stylishly simple: pressed tin ceiling, 1950s-style fabric on the banquettes, hand-blown glass pendants over a backlit bar, and art that changes about every three months. The night we dined there, gorgeous, large-scale abstract expressionist paintings by Christopher Albert lined the walls. The staff is young, attentive, and preppie (blue button-down shirts and khakis), and the multicultural crowd hanging out at the lively bar grooves to a soundtrack that mixes Michael Buble and Janis Joplin.

 

OII bills itself as a restaurant and tapas bar, so the menu is divided into “small plates,” “salads,” and “large plates.” The selection is exuberantly international. We started with ravioli of creamed leeks and Hudson Valley foie gras bathed in a buttered chicken demiglace, julienne apple, and toasted hazelnuts ($10). As if that wasn’t complexly flavored enough, it came with a dollop of Meyer lemon and tarragon sorbet on top, which slashed through the other rich tastes like a razor. Our other small plate — braised short rib and green chili soft tacos ($9) — was a piece of conceptual art. The intensely flavored meat was layered like a Napoleon with earthy blue corn tortillas and little piles of delectable accompaniments, each as delicious as the next: an ethereal lime-avocado foam, a tequila-marinated jicama and mango salad, and a warm grape tomato jam. It should be ensconced in the Guggenheim.

 

We refreshed our palates with a spinach, pink grapefruit, and roasted golden beet salad ($8) that came sprinkled with caramelized walnuts, crumbled Stilton cheese, and a slightly caramelized drizzle of white balsamic vinegar that had been reduced with some sugar, clove, lemon juice, and zest. The drizzle was fabulously gooey, but the beets were a bit bland — the golden ones are at their best in late summer, when they’re fresh. We also ordered an eminently reasonably priced 2002 Qupe Syrah ($30). Each dish seemed to bring out a different level of this wine — tannin with the tacos, bell pepper flavor with the ravioli, and blackberry flavors with the pork that followed.

 

That pork, a grilled Montana Ranch chop prepared Milanese ($19), was the better of our two entrées. Marinated with fresh herbs and baby green garlic, it was mouthwateringly succulent and savory. Perlman served it with the lightest, fluffiest white corn polenta I have ever tasted — too often this side dish turns into a starchy mush — and a “condimento” of sautéed kale and chunky tomato purée. The seared jumbo Maine dry sea scallops ($22) weren’t really all that “jumbo,” but they were bathed in a fiery Thai red curry cream and a spiced pomegranate soy drizzle. (Perlman hates the word “sauce,” so it’s banished from his menu.) Together, these flavors conspired to taste almost like a spicy hoisin barbecue sauce, somewhat overpowering the delicate maitake mushroom, asparagus, and lobster salad that came on the side. The four sculptural cubes of watermelon on the plate were too small to battle the heat of the curry, but they added a spritely sweet crunch.

 

My companion finished with a frozen key lime soufflé tart (adorned with drops of raspberry sauce and ginger-Grand Marnier syrup) and I with a selection of sorbets (both $8). Both were sharp and clean, tasting assertively of their fresh fruit ingredients. But after all the expressionistic layering of flavors we’d been through, the simplicity of the sorbets — a voluptuous apricot Grand Marnier, a tart green apple ginger, and a puckering blueberry port wine — illustrated how good something basic and unadulterated can be.

 

As in the art world, pluralism at OII is a good thing. And you don’t have to be from Beacon to understand that.

 

 

 

 

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