Whorebivore: Pass the Formaldehyde Reduction, Please

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Lever House Restaurant
390 Park Avenue (@54th St.)

If you weren’t a vegetarian before seeing Damien Hirst’s “School: The Archeology of Lost Desires, Comprehending Infinity, and the Search for Knowledge” at the Lever House, you may well be when you’re done. In the Park Avenue skyscraper’s lobby, the conceptual artist has suspended a cow carcass and sausage links in a formaldehyde-filled enclosure and floated dozens of dead sheep in fish tanks resting on autopsy tables. In the back of the exhibit, a shark is encircled by broken glass and pools of blood. It’s a great date place if you’re courting an art student or a sicko.

Happily on such occasions, Lever House Restaurant is right next door, so afterward you can avoid a fainting spell by rushing some sugar into your bloodstream. What’s more, the menu accommodates vegetarians—both sudden onset and longstanding—in creative ways. When you enter the restaurant, after Hirst’s installation you get the impression that you are heading from one Whitney Biennial piece to the next due to the fact that restaurant designer Marc Newson has fashioned his own conceptual art. He imagined the space as what an architect in the mid-20th century (the building’s origins) might have produced if he or she were gunning for futuristic pizzazz.

The result resembles an executive dining hall and lounge on the U.S.S. Enterprise. After walking through a 20-foot white tube with a waist-high light strip, visitors are zapped into a retro-futurism sound stage with taupe walls without corners or windows to the outside, where soft light radiates from honeycomb-shaped fixtures above. Despite the theme, the chef doesn’t play along with Jetsons-style food pills. Well, sort of.

A recent lunch at the bar included a seasonal appetizer—sucks for you, if you’ve missed it—a tapas-sized bowl containing a handful of glistening, radioactive green Padrón peppers that are slightly larger than stemmed gumdrops ($17). After they were tossed with sea salt and flash fried by the kitchen, the bartender squeezed them with lime before serving. Each encounter with a new specimen was suspense-filled. Most peppers were simply fresh and limey, with barnacle-like crusts of salt. But biting into the next one could be like eating a polonium pellet. Awooogahhh!

I followed up with another appetizer: a milky, cool and fresh-tasting half-fist of buffalo mozzarella in bed with a wet mix of olives and sun-dried tomatoes on an arugula cushion ($20). Instead of the mozzarella’s usual partner, fresh basil, it got basil fried to an oiled-parchment-like texture. The leaves were brittle, semi-translucent and beautiful, but I still would have preferred the more fragrant and meaningful-to-my-taste-buds fresh stuff.

After hitting Hirst on a different night with my student-of-art, slightly-sicko friend, I returned to the restaurant only to spot on the dinner menu a Colorado rack of lamb that I so hoped would be served in a formaldehyde reduction sauce. Disappointingly, no.

Instead, I tried the apple-fennel soup ($17), which was a baby’s puree that used young fennel plucked before maturity’s hormones doused it with much licorice-like flavor. Possibly because you could not serve this dish for $17 otherwise, the chef had squirted parsley oil in the middle and hid a couple gelatinous stewed golden raisins inside. I must admit, however, the soup was refreshing and rewarding—even for the price.

My date had the Fall Vegetable Plate ($32). It was three oblong nests of stringy spaghetti squash topped with a smattering of dark, firm, pebble-like fava beans, ratatouille, fresh watercress and lots of well-done, french-fried onions that gave the dish smokiness.

The spaghetti squash was too sweet to be the main component, and I wanted to trade it in for rice, polenta or some other starch. (I guessed that the chef would frown on such requests, so we didn’t ask.)

We also tried three sides ($10 each): broccoli raab that was wilted and mucky and somehow lacked its usual substantiality; sautéed “local spinach” that had a bizarre, yet pleasing, yellow cake-like baked quality to it and potato gratin.

It was kind of weird eating the last item, which I thought was one of the best. It was an upright perfect cylinder of profoundly creamy, densely stacked slices of potato that weren’t much thicker than a couple of credit cards. I thought it weird only because of the Star Trek environs that surrounded me while I enjoyed such mom-made goodness. The arty lady I was with, who hails from Indiana, said she liked it too.

That classics endure is reassuring. After all, there are going to be Midwesterners in space.

Whorebivore is a weekly column about vegetarian options at meat-lover locales. Post your own reviews at Whorebivore.com

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