In The Midnight Hour: Desnuda
Open Until: 2:00 am, 7 days
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: close, 7 days
Desnuda's Christian Zammas is a talkative fella—kind of like a best-case scenario of the season 3 finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry David invests in a restaurant with an open kitchen and hires a chef with Tourette's. Put gently, dude takes to being center stage, and it becomes instantly clear upon taking a seat at the long 18-seat bar that you are in his house.
And really, it's a very lovely house, with unique, homespun touches like shimmering tiled wall mosaics and undulating leaf-shaped paper fans. Gesturing towards his new arrivals, the toque joked with a couple near the front, "If these new customers didn't just come in, I'd pull down the gate and we could totally [have some fun]". Call me a masochist, but I loved this. Three years in, and Zammas is wholly comfortable as the commander of this breezy Latin American wine bar and cevicheria which shares DNA (in partner Ravi DeRossi) with neighborhood standbys Death and Co. and Mayahuel. Like a young Kenny Shopsin, the chef could be heard talking about Thursday's pickup in business, Michael White's tweets and the mind-blowing partnership of Steve Carell and Will Ferell in last week's The Office. "Now, that was comedy," he bellowed, before turning his attention to a side of salmon.
(If your name is Kenji, look away.) Each group of diners gets a complimentary cone of truffled popcorn. It's a very nice gesture, even when sacrilegious truffle oil rears its ugly head. Luckily, we were able to wash away all traces of the funky lipid with two glasses of Pablo Padin Segrel Albariño, a a crisp Spanish white with melon on the nose and a lemony acidity in its finish—an excellent suggestion from co-owner Peter Gevrekis.
Truffle flavor also showed up in a gorgeous plate of tuna yuzu ($19), deeply-hued slices of yellowfin supporting a deluge of red onion, pickled jalapeño, cilantro, yuzu, "salty potato crunch" and a shishito pepper glaze. The dish may sound busy, as many at Desnuda do, but it comes together harmoniously. Zammas was formerly the chef de cuisine at BONDST, and it shows in his selection and handling of the fish. It's the Japanese reverence for seafood gut-punched with a kick of Latin bravado.
A running special, sea bass seared tableside ($20) found slabs of local fish dusted with tingly shichimi togarashi, lime zest, yuzu, Thai chili oil, ponzu and slivers of ginger—another list of ingredients as long as Schindler's. With his back turned, the chef used a blowtorch to heat a mixture of olive and sesame oils, facing us to douse the sizzling liquid over the bass like a medieval enemy and while achieving an admirable medium rare. The just-cooked bass took on an unctuousness that tempered the acidic elements on the plate. Tableside cooking is nothing new, but at least there were no river rocks harmed in the making of this dish. I'd be remiss not to mention another preparation that employs badass techniques—Desnuda's oft-discussed smoked oyster. I'm unfortunately allergic to the briny bi-valves, but many before me have sung its praises. The chef burns lapsang souchong tea leaves and Szechuan peppercorns in a homemade gravity bong and encapsulates the smoke around the oyster, forcing the diner to pull a reverse Bill Clinton and inhale as they slurp.
Remarking on his time at BONDST, Zammas mentioned that he sometimes serves sea urchin (with figs) as a special, but only when he deems it to be of high enough quality. Apparently, the roe starts to deteriorate after two days unless it is cured, and since the quality from his supplier wavers, it's not a viable staple menu item. "At BONDST, we would steam it in sake to set it—took on a whole different flavor and texture." Again, that Japanese attention to detail.
About the author: Zachary Feldman is a former debutante and current freelance writer. He makes hand-crafted, small batch bitters under the moniker Bitters, Old Men.