Big Flavors in Unlikely Places at Rosette

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Ember-roasted leeks. [Photographs: Craig Cavallo]

Chinatown's pulse beats fastest at Canal and Bowery, where the Manhattan Bridge spills traffic onto the island and, nearby, the diesel engines of buses idle. Few people consider the eastern reaches of the neighborhood, between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, as a dining destination. But that's where Rosette opened at the end of January.

Ronald Castellano's design company Studio Castellano graced Rosette's three-room interior. In each, Castellano's affinity for New York City nightlife (he's a partner in Santos Party House) is elegantly laden throughout. So too are plates of Nick Curtin's food. Curtin, the former chef de cuisine at Acme, took what he learned from Mads Reflund there and molded it into a whimsical style he can safely call his own. The Nordic touch remains, but he's added shelves to his walk-in for storage of ingredients commonly found in the Two Bridges neighborhood like bonito, peanuts, tamari, and puffed rice.

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Walnut tahini.

The New Nordic obsession with pure ingredients greeted me in the form of Walnut Tahini ($8), a creamy, nutty emulsion of those two things accompanied by an earthy, seemingly fresh-from-the-garden amalgamation of raw radishes, beets, baby carrots, and local lettuce.

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Clam chowder croquettes.

Our smart, tuned-in server recommended we not miss the Clam Chowder Croquettes ($7). And while nothing fried ever needs my arm twisted, Rosette's bounty of well-priced small plates had me initially oblivious to the option. We ordered them, and when they arrived bite-size and stuck in a splash of tangy tarter sauce I put the fork down and took the popcorn route. A warm, briny clam and rich béchamel caught between a golden crust of fried breadcrumbs melted in my mouth, and the server gained my trust.

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Roasted avocado.

The inspiration for Roasted Avocado ($6) must be a baked russet that's scooped out, topped with bacon and cheddar, thrown into an oven, and enjoyed with a cold pilsner and dollop of sour cream. Instead of bacon, texture comes in the form of puffed rice. Bonito flakes take care of the salt and smoke, and chili yogurt satisfies the craving for sour cream. The heat hiding there is of the guerrilla variety. It sneaks up on you.

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Baby octopus.

Curtin sets Carolina Gold rice as the foundation for Baby Octopus ($14). The delicate grains support tender, itsy-bitsy tentacles that take on a dramatic black sheen from a sauce of squid ink.The otherwise monochrome plate is garnished with salty peanuts and flecks of parsley. The bites are unctuous ones. Each brought such pleasure everything disappeared prematurely.

The only dish I wouldn't reorder is the Ember-Roasted Leeks ($11). The bottoms of three tall, sturdy leeks are carefully nested into a pile of coals in the restaurant's wood-burning oven, where they roast until the oniony sting gets cooked off. But the pecan butter, huckleberry jam, and puffed rice that dresses them is a better read than it is a plate of food.

As I waited for my dinner guest to arrive, I sipped a $9 rye and pilsner cocktail while watching attractive couples stroll in for their reservations. The crowded bar suggested a restaurant focused more on its scene than its food. It's always nice to be surprised.