On a recent evening at Liquid Art House, sleek-haired women in small dresses and tall shoes scamper past a circular marble bar backed by a mural of a half-nude pixie waif graffitied with the words “Compared to what?” A purple glass chandelier spools from the ceiling like a giant spider in a trippy cartoon. Servers arrive in the dining room bearing dishes that treat the plate like a canvas — Zen landscapes of sliced lamb placed precisely on puddles of potato puree, crisp-skinned duck confit interrupting fauvist schmears of aioli. Artworks hang on the walls: a man sits beneath a tree stenciled on city bricks; a creature with a red button nose pokes its head out of a rainbow structure operated with knobs and buttons. Hand-painted skateboards and geometric, multicolored jewelry are on display. Everything is for sale.
Part restaurant, part gallery, Liquid Art House is decadent, experimental, expensive, ambitious, odd — a cross between Boston, underground Berlin, and the Capitol of “The Hunger Games.” It is the project of Ruta Laukien, a former Wall Street investment banker and art lover, and it feels both personal and passionate. No expense has been spared, no corner cut. The space is vast and lavish, from the Murano glass light fixtures to that beautiful round bar. An acclaimed chef, Rachel Klein, runs the kitchen. There is a house curator. There is a pastry chef. There is branding, with logos and mottos (“unbreak my art,” read the paper napkins at the bar). Even the chickens prepared on the rotisserie are a heritage breed raised on scraps from four-star restaurants.
It is one of the riskier openings the city has seen in some time. It has a point of view. It doesn’t play it safe. A night here can make you realize how rare this has become. Like the place or not — because what is more subjective than art or food with a point of view? — its nerve is admirable.
But does the concept work? The art on display when I visit does little for me, and I don’t see anyone else paying much attention. There is, however, oohing and aahing over sweet pea veloute, as fine a spring dish as I can remember, and gorgeous to boot. The jade bowlful captures and condenses the sweet, bright flavor of sugar snaps. It’s poured tableside; across the rim of the white bowl is a delicate cracker festooned with tiny florets of multicolored cauliflower and wee curlicues of Spanish sausage.
Wild mushroom dumplings are also objects of admiration. These are like something made by a babushka savant, more pelmeni than potsticker. The skins have a pleasing heft and chewiness; the dumplings are savory and rich, topped with sour cream, chives, and crisp
shiitake chips. Sour cherry dumplings are heavenly on one visit, the sweet-tart filling complemented by foie gras and pistachios. Another night, the cherry is too aggressive; it’s like eating cough syrup dumplings.
Eastern Europe is a prevailing muse. One evening I have the highest-end Jewish deli meal of my life. The first course is a black plate bejeweled with ruby and white dots, fuchsia spirals, and green leaves. If you had told my grandparents this was smoked sable with beet “borscht,” they would have had a good laugh, enjoyed the bites of delicious fish with potatoes, pickled onions, and rye crisps, then asked where the rest of the food was. They would have enjoyed my main course of (slightly overcooked) salmon, though. It is served with quail eggs, dill oil, chopped pickles, salmon roe, and sour cream -- essentially very elegant, deconstructed egg salad.
And the elaborate, multicomponent desserts from pastry chef Giselle Miller (Deuxave) are showstoppers, particularly the ones that play with Asian flavors: coconut rice pudding with mango, aloe, black sesame, and green sorbet heady with the flavor of Asian basil; young coconut semifreddo with lemon verbena ice cream and coconut-lime snow. Each meal ends with a plate of lovely macarons, madeleines, and pate de fruits.
But the food can be too elaborate, trying hard to achieve artfulness. A dish called “canvas of baby carrots” features the roots roasted, pickled, and grilled, served with carrot pudding, crisped kale, and a white powder that doesn’t have much flavor. The composition is more eye-catching than it is satisfying. The many elements of a main course of scallops — cauliflower puree, pickled carrot, pomegranate, spiced yogurt, itty bitty meringues — never quite come together. A chocolate-themed dessert is spiked with smoked walnuts that taste like a chimney in need of a sweep.
Tear-shaped chargers, whisked immediately away, feel dated and fussy; the pitchers from which many sauces and soups are poured look like miniature neti pots. Service is sometimes pitch perfect, sometimes comically overeager. Dinner at Liquid Art House can feel like playing tea party with a very precocious child.
But there is balance in simple, good things: a selection of house-baked bread offered to each diner at the beginning of the meal with butter and coarse salt, perfectly grilled steaks, and that chicken, the one that ate better in life than the average American citizen, its meat dense and moist and full of flavor. (Most of the time, at least. On one visit, it has been rotisserized a turn or two too many.)
Wine director Shaun Snow curates a list that is both adventurous and sophisticated, divided into bottles from the Old World and the New, with Macedonian rkatsiteli and Greek xinomavro alongside classic French and Italian selections. And the cocktail program is a pip, with well-made potions like the Street Art (tequila, creme de violette, lime, and bitters, fluffy with egg white) and the Tombstone Sour (a balanced mix of rye, apricot, lemon, vanilla, and star anise).
Klein is a natural choice to head a restaurant that is also a gallery. Dating to her days as opening chef at Om, she has been known for dishes with visual appeal. She spent the last handful of years in less-visible roles at the Seaport and Mandarin Oriental hotels. It is good to see her back in a smaller kitchen, in more direct communion with the food. Chef de cuisine Ensan Wong also worked at Om, then studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, interned with Pierre Herme, and worked at the Michelin three star Le Meurice.
There is real talent here, and much that is good. The food is often delicious and beautiful. There are still tangles to work through; consistency, one hopes, will come with time. The work on the table often outshines that on the walls, but then food is today’s favored art form. Liquid Art House gets an A for ambition.
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