Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ayza Café and Wine Bar

11 W 31st St (5th Ave/Broadway)

31st St between Broadway and 5th Avenue is a funny place to put a restaurant. Some consider it the southern edge of Korea Town, but on the whole, the block is something of a wasteland. This makes it both apt location for a decent restaurant and somewhere that passersby are unlikely to casually stroll by and drop in. Can Ayza Café and Wine Bar help to launch the area’s transformation into a culinary destination? I believe that it can.

What kind of a name is Ayza? I wondered. The food and the accents on the staff suggest some cross between Mediterranean and Eastern European. So that lands us where, Austria? It was only when I discovered the owners’ names, Aytac Nural and Zafer Sevimcok, that their take-part-of-mine-and-part-of-yours naming strategy became clear.

The interior of the restaurant is wide and shallow, with a bar in the center and seating areas on either side. Each seating area consists of two long, high benches facing each other, punctuated with small tables. The benches are upholstered in a warm red fabric and allow their occupants to look either out the wall of windows or at the action going down at the bar. Pairs and groups of diners are given the option of putting chairs at the tables opposite the benches, or adopting the side-by-side arrangement favored by people-watchers and lovey couples. Rectangular pendant lamps with linen shades hang from the ceiling and complete the cozy ambience.

We started the meal with tuna tartare with fresh avocado, crème fraîche, and sweet fish roe. Raw tuna seems to be popping up every time you open a menu these days, with avocado as a frequent accomplice, but the crème fraîche set this dish refreshingly apart from the masses. Next came a platter of cheeses and charcuterie (the generic French term for cured and cooked meats, usually pork-based, of which we chose three and two, respectively, from a list that features five of each. The meat-and-cheese-oriented can select either three or five items from the combination of Column A and Column B, and they come with fresh peaches, champagne grapes and fig mustard. Our cheeses were soft Bucheron, made from goat’s milk, hard Hoch Ybrig from Switzerland, and semi-soft Tête de Moine, served in its typical curly-topped cone shape, looking something like a small bouquet of cream-colored frisée. At their side was salty, dark red Bresaola and wild boar Prosciutto. The whole plate was a dream. The cheese went especially well with the fruit, and I got the sense that even had we chosen the five options that didn’t make the cut this time, we more or less couldn’t have gone wrong.

When I asked our waitress what goat cheese in pâte de brick was, I worried that her hesitation before comparing it to a blintz might be due to the distance between English and her mother tongue. But her description turned out to be perfect. My plate featured a bed of greens upon which lay the loveliest of gifts: goat cheese with honey, thyme, and rosemary, cradled in crisp pastry and drizzled with a balsamic glaze. If you have never had the pleasure of tasting goat cheese and honey together, now is the time. The herbs did the divine pairing one better. We also ordered the medallions of filet mignon with roasted port shallots. The meat was flavorful, but was thin and lacked the sear we expected, almost appearing to have been boiled. The shallots were nicely caramelized and there was a small green salad flavored with truffle oil.

I’m not going to dress it up: the Twenty-Layer Crêpes Cake, which comes from Lady M Cake Boutique on the Upper East Side, is one of the most heavenly things I have ever eaten. It is actually a stack of crêpes, layered with light, amazing custard. Do not leave Ayza Café and Wine Bar without ordering this cake. It is simply not to be missed. We also had a tasty chocolate mousse layer cake that could be a nice alternative on your 51st visit to the restaurant, after 50 servings of crêpe cake.

As for wine, we enjoyed a glass of Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Les Setilles Chardonnay—a light, fresh white Burgundy—and one of pink-tinged white sangria fairly brimming with peach and strawberries, which was ladled from a large pitcher on the bar.

Ayza is not the restaurant I would choose for an expense account dinner, but it is the perfect place to gather a group of friends for a delicious bite before a night out. I look forward to returning to try the rest of the meats and cheeses and—I won’t lie—getting another piece of that crêpe cake.

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