33 East 61st Street, New York NY 10065 (map); 212-813-1113; geisharestaurant.com
Service: Perfectly satisfactory
Setting: Sleek modern room, vaguely evocative of Japan, I suppose.
Cost: Three courses, $29
Geisha is looking a bit ragged these days. The stitching on my chic leather place mat had a loose thread that I couldn't help twirling around my finger; the table underneath rocked precariously back and forth until my waiter wedged a napkin underneath to steady it. (I am surprised that there isn't a universally employed solution to this problem. I wonder how many napkins are wasted each year trying to steady un-steady tables.)
There is an ambivalence at Geisha that seems to permeate both the service and the food. The room is a sleek modern affair, vaguely evocative of Japan, but one that could be almost anywhere but Japan—Dubai, Las Vegas, an airport somewhere. There is something rather cynical about the lunch menu as well. It offers fairly pedestrian mains—chicken, salmon or vegetable noodles—where similarly priced lunch deals offer far more interesting ingredients. For example, there is some very fine Wagyu beef on the menu, but none of that finds its way on to the lunch menu—not even in the form of the Wagyu fried rice, one of the restaurant's best bites. But the restaurant's supposed strength, sushi, is not represented on the lunch special but for a solitary roll.
A generous half-dozen fried oysters are offered at lunch. I have had them before and greatly enjoyed the crisply fried parcels that come served over a creamy sriracha-infused sauce. Not this time. They were overcooked, the crust saturated with frying oil, the innards somehow arid. The oil tasted a little old, masking the taste of the oysters themselves. A disappointment. If only as much attention had been paid to their preparation as to their presentation.
A nice-sized hunk of Atlantic salmon was redolent with miso and served a perfect-pink medium rare, the exterior exhibiting a pleasing crispness. Best of all, though, were the buttery slivers of Shiitake mushroom stashed under the fish that brought earthy notes to the oceanic dish.
To finish things off, a coconut blanc-manger with chocolate shavings—the cloudlike dessert almost made me forget the debacle of the oysters. The coconut, which can dominate a dish texturally, was finely ground enough that it never interfered with the creaminess and smoothness.
The food at Geisha is generally competent, sometimes delicious (especially if you spring for the Wagyu) but you are paying as much for the scene and decor as what's on the plate. Function, on some level, ceded to form. Those looking for authentic Japanese food, of course, should look elsewhere. And the restrictive nature of the lunch menu, which is confoundedly bereft of sushi but for a single spicy tuna roll, does not offer enough of what Geisha does well.