Hold on: it's a fun, wild ride

The fare at Bicycle takes surprising, but flavorful, twists and turns along the way

Sunday Gourmet

November 09, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

If Bicycle chef/owner Barry Rumsey had designed the new renovation of his restaurant to reflect his food, the rooms would be filled with eclectic furniture, sensuous curves, baroque ornamentation and a riot of color and pattern. Instead, he and his co-owner, Deborah Mazzoleni, who is also his wife, went with clean lines and a minimum of accessorizing when they recently expanded into the rowhouse next door.

Behind the new front dining room and wine bar, painted in bold colors, is a smaller, quieter room where we were seated. I remember the restaurant's polished bare wood floors and silver metal-laminate tables from my previous visit, although then our table was right in front of the open kitchen, and I complained long and loudly about the noise. But with the renovation came serious soundproofing, and the Bicycle is now a much more pleasant place to be.

The walls in the small dining room are painted a soothing milk chocolate and celadon. A large plate-glass window looks out to a small garden in back. And best of all, the wait staff will turn down the music if you ask.

Here and there are French bicycle posters, a reference to the fact that Rumsey is a dedicated cyclist. Other than that, the owners pretty much let the food be the restaurant's decoration.

Rumsey is a talented chef with a runaway imagination. But he understands the most important thing: You can pair unlikely ingredients, you can build whimsical shapes and squiggle decorative sauces, you can add a jolt of sweetness where no sweetness has gone before, you can season the dish till your customers' hair catches fire, but in the end the food has to taste good. In fact, when the check is likely to be around $50 a person, it has to taste great.

For the most part, it does. Appetizers are Rumsey's forte - or small plates, as they're called on the menu. Maybe they're so successful for the very reason that they are small plates. Their size reins in the chef's creativity a bit. Less is going on, which still leaves a lot going on. The sensuous texture of ice-cold sushi-grade tuna plays off against the creamy softness of avocado with flying fish roe to add crunch. If that weren't enough, there are greens and a faintly sweet, fiery peanut dressing. (Not a Thai peanut dressing, mind you, but Balinese.)

A tartlet plays a riff on the classic quiche Lorraine, with fork- tender pastry, a creamy custard, bacon, gruyere, leek and crab. It's terrific, and the baby greens with smoked plum tomato vinaigrette are an unexpected plus. As an appetizer, it may be a little over the top; as a small plate, it's supper in miniature. Rumsey knows that's how a lot of people are eating these days.

A salad of sea scallops, seared with a soy accent, greens and spiced macadamia nuts is graced with a pear and dried cranberry chutney - a juxtaposition that has no right to taste as good as it does. Bicycle's fabulous pureed sweet potato soup flavored with lemongrass and lime and little flashes of fire seems almost tame in comparison, but it's a good tame.

Entrees, or large plates, don't disappoint, but we ended up being slightly more critical of them. Take the spiny lobster, which was FedExed from the Keys, our waitress told us. (OK, to name the company doing the shipping was an overshare on her part.) Seasoning the lobster meat with jerk spices and guava jelly seemed fussy rather than strange and wonderful, although creamy cheese grits were a powerful antidote and the combination tasted better than you might expect.

Braised short ribs, a miniature beef tenderloin and slices of top sirloin, each with its own intriguing sauce, seasoning or marinade, gained nothing by being forced to share the same plate. On the other hand, I had no complaints with any of them. But just because one makes you happy doesn't necessarily mean that three makes you three times as happy.

The restaurant's fish are particularly noteworthy, our waitress told us. Rumsey combines mahi mahi with shrimp and spinach, and bakes them in a delicate cloak of phyllo with a seasoning so fiery our eyes watered. The seafood is served on thick Shanghai noodles with a creamy sauce of garlic, walnuts and cilantro. Those noodles are so fine they deserve to be an entree by themselves.

If you're longing for something simpler, you can opt for the red snapper baked en papillote with Mediterranean flavors - fresh herbs, cherry tomatoes, ripe olives and olive oil. Simpler, of course, is a relative term. The fish comes with Chinese black sticky rice and a seductive mix of baby green beans, pencil-thin asparagus, carrot slivers, snow peas and the like.

With such exotic flavors you could hardly serve bread and butter (well, I could, but that's another story) so the breadbasket contains seeded flatbread and spaghetti-thin breadsticks. Also, the Bicycle's international wine list has been expanded, with some 500 bottles. There's beer, and a bottled water list but no hard liquor.

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