Nobody would believe this was once the site of Brownrout's Fish Market. The newly opened Nektar (the rich, elegant sister to dependable Ambrosia right down the street) is so full of fresh colors and so replete with interestingly angled tables that it practically out-New Yorks any Manhattan restaurant you've ever been in.
And it's got more than that going for it - namely, that little edge of excitement that makes dining an experience. Since its opening a scant month ago, the place has been buzzing and humming and has quickly become one of the hottest dining rooms in town.
The glossy people dining here are exactly where they want to be.
Enter from Elmwood Avenue and go through the martini bar, with its enormous roster of varieties. Since I am a purist come to the noble cocktail, I can only report that the Belevedere vodka martini with twist was absolutely fine.
You go past the bar to get to the dining tables. Ours was tucked into a side alcove marked off by a stunning white drapery. It was right in the same spot they use to prepare the fish, and I kept pinching myself. It was also in a comparatively quiet location (the decibel level in Nektar is high).
The restaurant has a wood oven, so many of the entrees are cooked there. You may choose, for instance, to order a flat bread. It resembles a pizza and is big enough to make a hearty supper for one person or respectably sized appetizers for four.
The flatbreads are composed of every trendy, tasty ingredient you've ever heard of. Prosciutto, Fig and Sage with Gorgonzola, for instance ($10.50). Or Wild Mushrooms, Parmesan and Ricotta with White Truffle Oil ($9.50). Or you might choose, as we did, the Lobster, Escarole, Pancetta, Roasted Pine Nut, Asiago Combination for $12. This is the most popular flat bread, our server told us. And why not? Those ingredients sell themselves. It is my painful duty, however, to tell you that the Lobster Flat Bread was a little dry.
Other starters - Organic Bitter Greens with Balsamic Vinegar and Fresh Grapes, and an Arugula and Warm Goat Cheese Salad were excellent, please note.
These are early days for Nektar, of course, and that wood oven probably will take a little getting used to. It's as moody as any chef can be, I suppose. How else to explain that the restaurant's star entree, a unique Roasted Branzino (a type of sea bass, $23) was also on the dry side?
But the fish was served so beautifully I almost didn't care. It was baked whole and presented with a flourish. Our very capable server was able to debone the fish at the table to great effect. Accompaniments included fennel, saffron and preserved tomatoes.
Accompaniments in general are very glamorous here. Wood-Grilled Garlic Chicken ($19) was moist and served with Lemon-Cured Olives and Eggplant Caviar Mashed Potatoes. The fine Grilled Rack of Lamb ($34) came with Apple, Pear and Mint Relish and Mediterranean Potatoes. And the Roast Salmon ($24) showed up with Shiitaki Mushrooms, Pancetta, Fingerling Potatoes and Escarole.
This, in case you haven't figured it out by now, is an enormously ambitious menu. The kitchen has its work cut out for it, and it may take some time before everyone feels completely at ease.
They are at ease serving dessert already, however, because all of them were excellent. Desserts will change from time to time, but our table was really taken with the Chocolate Napoleon. And the Honey Cake with Pears was a total joy.
NEKTAR *** *
WHERE: 451 Elmwood Ave. (881-1829.) Spectacular-looking restaurant that became a very hot dining destination within a month of its opening. Entrees are either cooked in a wood oven or grilled. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Wood-Grilled Garlic Chicken.
NEEDS WORK: Whole Herb-Roasted Branzino.
PRICE RANGE: Entrees from around $17. Flat Breads (pizza) from $8.50.
HOURS: Monday through Saturday from 4 to 11. Late menu available until 2 a.m. HEALTHY CHOICES: Penne Pasta with Lobster and White Beans, Pinot Roasted Salmon.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.
PARKING: Valet parking, in the lot or on the street.
KID APPEAL: Get a sitter.