Safran88 Seventh Ave, 212-929-1778 Price range: $20-$35 Rating: 1 L
It’s exciting when the drone of power tools emerges from a vacant storefront, and posted amongst the various permits is an application for a liquor license. The joy of a new watering hole, and more so, the lack of another bank or drugstore.
Last summer, blocks from my apartment, this familiar scene unfolded, and in the end, an independent French-Vietnamese restaurant opened in a restaurant-starved stretch of Chelsea, with an haute interior and an innovative menu. It seemed destined for success. But then something strange happened. I never went, and neither did many others. It wasn’t written up, it wasn’t crowded. Yet it persists. The bar is lively during happy hour, when an ebullient bartender serves expert highballs — and few of Safran’s syrupy specialties.
Time to give the joint its fair shake. The décor, reminiscent of a swank hotel lobby in Hanoi, seems the perfect example of Safran’s ethos. Every effort was taken to look expensive, but corners were cut and upkeep is lacking. Fabrics are stained, lights are out, paint lines are wavy, the bathrooms’ Toto fixtures are paired with plastic trashbins. So too with the food. Traditional Chao Tom ($5), grilled shrimp paste wrapped over sugarcane, was soggy and tasteless, so I didn’t mind only three modest sticks. Likewise, La Sa ($6), a coconut curry soup with shrimp and vermicelli, was not terribly appealing, with an overabundance of fish sauce covering the flavor of the single butterflied shrimp, lonesome in a tepid bath.
Sensing a pattern, I wasn’t expecting much from the trio of Tofu ($14). The menu promised stewed, sautéed, and grilled, but one third was definitely fried, spewing oil when its golden crust was broken. I actually enjoyed that one, though the lemon-pepper and sesame dips obscured the tofu’s faint nutty taste. The other two were hardly worth eating, one suffused with clashing Japanese spices, another with no taste at all. A high point was a salad of baby vegetables, mango and mushroom, the fresh, elegantly combined Vietnamese flavors I was hoping to find. Another decadent entrée of duck breast, leg, and foie gras ($26) bathed in a balsamic citrus sauce was cold when it got to our table in the nearly empty restaurant. That last dish was emblematic of the whole experience. Nice sounding, presented on fashionable plates, and egregiously executed.
Suburban. That’s the only word I have for it. And in Westchester or Long Island, Safran would probably be packed. But we don’t live in the sexless, beige, strip-malled sameness of suburbia. We know better. Just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s good. Though it’s certainly better than another Citibank.