What is an “ethnic” restaurant? The word comes from the Greek ethnikos, which means pagan, or heathen, so a guess is that an ethnic restaurant is as “other” as possible. These days I find there are three kinds of genuinely ethnic restaurants: those offering a cuisine otherwise entirely unknown here, those that tread a well-known ethnic path with inventive originality, and a more recently developed cuisine from a distant area. I have recently tried all three.
Oda House is a cheerful storefront restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and it serves the cuisine of European Georgia. Its superior cuisine is one of those that wrings many tastes and flavors from a limited number of ingredients.
At Michelin Guide–recommended Oda, the cuisine is an inventive expression of its basic ingredients: herbs (cilantro, parsley, basil, and tarragon), smoked cheeses, and a wealth of walnuts crushed into various sauces. Here, the excitement starts with magnificent breads—Adjaruli, a huge, crisp roll with hot feta-like Imeruli and a mozzarella-like smoked Sulgunicheese in its belly. For fresh tastes, the Pkhali Trio combines eggplant, spinach, and leeks with ground walnuts, fresh herbs, and spices, but no oil, the whole sprinkled with glittering pomegranate seeds. Satsivi is a grass-fed chicken served cold in a sauce of chopped walnuts and garlic, along with hot Georgian grits (or ghomi) in a saffron-based broth.
In the second category I would put Uncle Boons, a Thai restaurant recently opened by Per Se graduates Ann Redding and Matt Danzer (Ann’s mother is Thai). At Uncle Boons, the emphasis is on “street food.” I would love to know on what street, here or in heaven, one might have mee krob—sweetbreads with crispy noodle salad—peanuts, dried shrimp, sawtooth herb, and tamarind sauce—the flavors and textures, sweet and sour, crisp and melting, playing beautifully against each other in every mouthfeel.
The Musket Room demonstrates what a bright, energetic young chef from a far corner of the world can do to showcase and create a cuisine that perhaps did not exist a century ago. Matt Lambert, who trained and worked in Auckland, has created his own riff on New Zealand cuisine, letting his imagination and understanding of both English and Asian flavors, along with French techniques, play out with New Zealand’s own unique ingredients.
At The Musket Room, our meal began with a melt-in-your-mouth cheddar and bacon brioche (breads are ordered individually)—English flavors cooked up in France. Along came a wreath of cold smoked scallops interspersed with slivers of pickled cucumber, black garlic, white cubes of pear, and sea beans, the whole pervading the air with the heavy scent of manuka smoke, something of an aboriginal strangeness which New Zealanders say transports them to the campfires of home. Most unusual of all, however, is the ora salmon. Here it is lightly poached into a celestial sliver, served with satsuma, a kind of mandarin that is here freeze-dried and turned into a jam, and a scattering of sunflower seeds.
And yes, all three of these restaurants will transport you to a very “other” world.