At Paname, a new restaurant that bears the French slang name for Paris, it’s not just about what’s cooking but making it good looking too.
A bit of a hike from the UN, just north of 56th Street on Second Avenue, Paname offers a $20 prix-fixe lunch. If you can spare the time for a tasty, thoughtfully presented three-course lunch, ça vaut le voyage (“worth the trip”), as the French would say.
Along with great food at a reasonable price, Paname offers a warm welcome and a polite, efficient staff. The noise level is unusually low, allowing for easy conversation. And the place is uncrowded at lunch — right now, anyway– so odds are you can walk in and nab a table.
There’s nothing lavish about the decor, which is dominated by a trio of large paintings of art deco-ish women.
The tables, which are perhaps spaced a bit too close for a top-secret diplomatic conversation, accommodate about 40 with six more seats at the bar.
Some may view the artistic touches on some of the preparations as a bit over the top. An unkind critic could accuse the kitchen of playing with its food. But how often do you get a conversation piece in the form of a salmon steak topped by a decorative red-tinted potato-based fence?
The ample filet could have been a little rarer — it was barely on the pink side — but remained moist and flavorful. It was accompanied by a rainbow of garnishes: tender baby green beans, cherry tomatoes and rounds of roasted sweet potato, carrot and parsnip.
A scallopini of Niman Ranch pork with mushrooms in a cream sauce stood out: a generous stack of thin pork filets, quickly fried until just done alongside thick slices of Portobello mushroom in a brown sauce. A small mound of mashed potatoes helped fill out the plate along with more of the green beans, cherry tomatoes and roasted vegetables. Oh, and another one of those potato-based plate sculptures.
A thick and deeply rich Niçoise sauce of long-simmered tomato, garlic, black olives and spices was the co-star of a “Mediterranean-style” cod steak, served on a bed of smooth mashed potatoes. Other house specialties include mussels marinières ($12 à la carte), a hangar steak with frites and salad ($14) and bouillabaisse ($19).
The starters can be just as ambitious. Two perfectly sautéed crab cakes were accompanied by a saffron aioli and served on an oversized plate decorated with a flowered border and a piped checkerboard grid of aioli. Unlike the usual breadcrumb-padded crab cake, these were meaty and made for a generous appetizer in the prix-fixe meal.
Another starter featured a nest of baby octopuses beached on cannellini beans. The octopuses had a slight red-pepper tang and were simmered to tenderness. Onion soup ($2 extra on the fixed-price menu) hewed closely to the traditional model, with loads of soft-cooked onion bathing in beef stock and topped with a thick layer of gooey white cheese and bread chunks.
Most working-lunchers skip dessert, but at Paname this would be a mistake. The house-made pastries are luxurious and delicious and their decorative touches elaborate. The house coffee you will want to accompany them comes rich and freshly brewed.
Flourless chocolate cake arrives decked out as a swan, its two wings and long neck fashioned from thin cookies. It sails on a strawberry lake, carrying a dollop of whipped cream and a bright green mint leaf on its back. The fudgy chocolate is so unctuous that it grabs at the spoon. Chocolate Volcano proved to be a small, rich, light soufflé topped with strawberries and whipped cream.
The house tarte Tatin, traditionally an upside-down apple pie encased in caramelized sugar and butter, is a deconstructed version, with a whole roasted apple sitting on a disc of flaky pastry crust with a moat of caramel sauce.
An airy spun-sugar basket caps the apple while cradling strawberry slices and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The Tatin sisters who invented the original may be spinning in their graves, but this version, while borderline silly, was still a feast for the eyes and a tasty study in contrasting textures, temperatures and flavors.
Paname is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 11 p.m. and on Sundays from noon to 10 p.m. It is located at 1068 Second Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets. (212) 207-3737.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.