245 Park Avenue South (at 20th St)
City: New York, NY
Site: Visit the restaurant site
2nd Cuisine: Asian
Area: Gramercy Park
Entree Price: $10-15
Lately, I feel like dining is a lot like dating. No, not in that I eat my dates. As my Grandma Esther would say—“Get your mind out of the gutter!” Allow me to explain. There are restaurants you meet and know the minute you lay eyes on them, that they will be good for about one drink and then you’ll have to get out. These places don’t have a clue—they offer careless service, thoughtless food, and make you feel about as warm and fuzzy as a rat in a hole. (Places like these don’t stay in business long enough to even be mentioned here.) Then there are those hot and sexy restaurants you stroll into and know instantly that there is an undeniable surface attraction, but at the same time, you know there’s not much underneath. The place is not relationship material, but the chemistry is there, and it’s clear this will be fun for one or two (maybe five) nights. Ono, Tao, Dos Caminos, Matsuri—these are your Fling or One Night Stand restaurants. Then there are restaurants that fall outside the dating arena, but that are quite important (even more important in some ways). These are your Friends. For me, these are places like Five Points, Tia Pol, Prune, August, Casa Mono, The Red Cat, The Tasting Room, Craftbar, and the like. These are places you will always hold dear. You call on these places when you need to celebrate, and when you need to be nurtured. They care about you, they know your name, they support you, fill you with food that heals you, lifts you up, and makes you smile. They are the places you adore and always want in your life. Then there are restaurants you meet and know immediately that something is different. You can feel it. You are going to fall, and hard. There is physical chemistry—the room has a vibe that makes you feel tingly and like the most beautiful being. Butterflies swarm around you in flocks. But it’s not just a pretty face. There is also an intellectual spark, and an emotional connection. The service is warm and smart, the food is delicious—soulful, clever, interesting, and dynamic. These are the spots you commit to, without hesitation. But it takes a certain maturity to look for and to meet these restaurants. When you are looking for places like Tao, you wont find reach for restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Café Gray, Fleur de Sel, Tocqueville, L’Impero, Bouley, or Daniel. (Restaurants like Per Se fall into this category too, but I can’t afford to be in a relationship with Per Se.) And, finally, in dining as with dating, there is heartbreak. Restaurants like Quilty's, Cello, and La Caravelle—places that leave you when you aren’t ready for them to go. I thought about this analogy while I was considering my recent dinner at Sugarcane, the creation of the team behind Sushi Samba, and concluded that on my dating-as-dining scale, this restaurant lies somewhere between Fling and Friend with Benefits. This is a fun spot. You’ll like it. The food is fine, but it is not going to win over your heart and mind. The place is cool though. And you will want to come back and get some when you feel like a fizzy, frivolous, and sexy evening. When we were there last week—Susie, Cori, Paula and I—we were gearing up for a night of Super Diamond at Irving Plaza, and Sugarcane is the perfect place for a night of such silly guilty pleasures. It has the same lustful and loud energy as Sushi Samba, but on a smaller, more low-lit scale. The lean, rectangular space has low ceilings lined with carved wrought iron, clubby circular banquettes with amber lighting, and a snug, Zen-styled back room for large parties. It has a super swanky bar car feel to it—perhaps like the one on The Orient Express if it traveled by way of Brazil. The restaurant was filled with clans of lithe women wearing little clothing and a lots of lip gloss, standing like prey in front of hunter packs of well-groomed men who clearly spent more time primping for dinner than I did. Like Sushi Samba, Sugarcane is a tribute to both Brazilian-Asian fare, but this spot highlights the spirits of these regions—caçhaca, rum, shochu and sake. Truthfully, the cocktails I can do without—they were too sweet for me. I like my cocktails like I like my men—quite strong. The menu is modest in size, and quite nicely edited to the essentials. (Some menus lately are getting way too long.) There’s a selection of ceviches under Raw, followed by Castirons, Greens, Skewers, Crisps (fried items), and Sushi. We started with a round ceviches—all spectacular but one. The lone dud was a Cachaca Cured Kanpachi ($12) that had a very powerful stink of fish gone bad, and tasted not much better. But the others in the ceviche trio ($16)—the tiger shrimp, the red snapper and the lobster, were terrific—fresh, bright, and sparkly on the tongue. The second section of the menu, Castirons, offers skillet cooked dishes like Shrimp with Aji Amarillo (a chile-fired cream sauce), NY Strip Toban Yaki ($13), and Baked Lobster with Creamy Yuca ($14). The Baked Lobster looked like a skillet of marshmallows—and tasted like nothing. The lobster was moist, but it had no discernable flavor and the fluffy yucca topping—that resembled a quilt of mashed potatoes puffed up on Botox—was also bland. The Strip Steak was good, though not great—nice slices of tender meat sautéed with mushrooms and scallions that could still use a hit of salt and pepper. Far better were the skewers. The Miso-Glazed Sea Bass ($10) was great—caramelized hunks of bass, like black cod with miso from Nobu, in bite sized pieces for pop-in-your-mouth pleasure. Ditto with Hudson Valley Foie Gras threaded with fat tender cubes of duck and grilled figs ($13). We also liked the Farofa Toast with Short Ribs and Olive Salsita—think bruschetta, but the bread is made from farofa (Brazilian yucca flour), and the crunchy platforms are topped with buttery dominos of glazed short ribs and an olive relish that seemed to have nicely harnessed all of the flavor left out of those Castirons skillets. The sushi, along the lines of the Sushi Samba menu, is fresh and tasty and served Carnivale style—in big bold rolls with color-coordinated dipping sauces. After our dinner, we finished off our sake and wine and were all fired up for our night with Super Diamond. It was hilarious. Love on the Rocks—great stuff people. While Sugarcane is a Fling Restaurant—it does not have the internal dimension that warrants more of a serious relationship—it knows what it is, and that’s fine. It’s not masquerading as one thing, pretending to be a serious relationship restaurant, when it’s not. It is honest with what it is, and in that way, you don’t get let down or hurt. While the food was hit or miss, what was a hit was tasty. The place has a good energy, and the service was quite attentive and knowledgeable. Our waitress was gorgeous (duh), and knew her sake, wine, and cocktails, and had a commanding description of each dish on the menu. (Clearly this is one actress who is excellent at memorizing her lines). At the end of the evening, Sugarcane will give you that flush of pleasure you are looking for, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. And if it’s really good, you can always come back for a booty call. I guess, the thing is, in the world of dining, as in dating, you have a few flings, make some amazing friends, and somewhere along the way, as you grow, learn, and get your heart broken—hopefully—you will find true love—or at least get a little taste of it.
Review By: Andrea Strong