Dinner for two: food plus tax $125
I’m embedded in a Mediterranean fish war. For more than thirty years, the Dalmatian Joso’s at Av/Dav has commanded the Avenue Road strait. But now there’s a challenger. The new Ionian Malena is just a couple of blocks South. It’s the ingredient that counts here.The battle is on for the freshest fish — weapon of choice is the grill.
Let the flames begin.
Malena is a charming clubby makeover of the old Pink Pearl, polished wood with a stunning silver wall and an inviting windowside ar. It is designed by Sam Kalogiros and David Minicucci who also own the neighbouring youthquake L’ Unita. Malena however is for adults, affluent Annex, low music, low lights, friendly service personified by Raffaele, the maitre d’. who’ s dressed down in jeans. The menu is concise if not quite Greek, but it’s the spirit which counts. Oysters from Rodney’s, Stone Crab claw from Florida – and a soft shell crab, $20, the seasonal queen of East coast crustaceans $20.There are several ways to cook these squashy leggy creatures and Chef Doug Niegel goes half-tempura, light crisp crust on wonderfully fresh crab which still has its tasty tomalley (yellow pancreas). Lucky because that’s sometimes removed for health reasons.
And now for an authentic tang of the Med: two little flat barges of marinated fresh sardines $13 carry shredded romaine topped by the crunch of pancetta with a dab of roaste d garlic cream. We are now sipping appreciatively a $45 bottle of lemony alberino (Via Latina). Malena’ s wine list starts very reasonably.
From the daily fish selection, we pick a hefty snapper $33 fragrantly grilled – a squeeze of lemon brings out every cell of taste. We’re not so lucky with Spot Prawn risotto $29, a dish from which taste actually recedes. The advertised cumin is hard to recognize and the spot prawn, demure compared to the big Gulfs with their algae driven iodine, is puzzlingly paired with another shy food, the subtle artichoke.
Dessert (all $8) is showgirl time – an astringent blood orange icecream draped in fennel marshmallow is terrific. The lemon phyllo tart is dazzling and too sweet. A sad shake of the head to walnut bread pudding, much too stodgy to accompany the truffle- infused sheep’s milk cheese.
Overall, we think, this is the kind of elegant metrosexual place that Alan Bates would have loved before he fell into the unbuttoned world of Zorba the Greek aka Anthony Quinn.