What the hell used to be here? That was the running question, leading me up the exterior staircase, as I entered Baotique at Covet Lounge this past Tuesday. Jean and I had a 6:45 p.m. dinner reservation and, in true Lunch Belle fashion, I arrived 15 minutes early. As I approached the hostess' stand to announce my arrival, it hit me: this was the former Azza space, which I had been to for a couple of birthday celebrations and after-parties. A-ha!
In its entirety, the space is divided: Baotique (restaurant) is located on the street-level, while Covet Lounge occupies the floor beneath. One identical trait that these "fraternal twins" share? A captivating physical attraction — displayed via brilliant restoration and interior decor located, literally, in every nook and cranny of their mutual space. Think modern-day opulence meets beaux-arts. Brilliant.
"Hi doll," Jean exclaimed from across the room as she made her grand entrance. "I need a drink."
Unfortunately for both of us, our waitress informed Jean and I that, in some sort of beverage-ingredient delivery fluke, the cocktail list was unavailable that evening. Or something along those lines. This was particularly odd, especially for a venue that, first and foremost, coins itself as a lounge — so much so, that the "Baotique" piece of "Baotique at Covet Lounge," does not even have signage from the street (the only giveaway is knowing the building number or recognizing the "Covet" sign)! We settled for a glass of wine.
With Baotique's seafood-heavy menu, chock-full of unique ingredients, I let Jean do the "driving." We chose to split an array of dishes:
Black Cod Dumpling Soup Docked atop a fragrant pool of lemongrass-scented seafood broth were homemade wontons filled with black cod. Delicate, fried fish skin "barges" and wilted greens served as flavorful flotation devices.
Chao Tom Roll Each roll — tightly bound together by a moist rice-paper wrapper — was filled with vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, a grilled shrimp cake, and topped with finely-chopped peanuts. A sweet 'n sour carrot-based slaw and lime-scented fish sauce accompanied the rolls.
Wild Mushroom Crêpe This was, without question, my favorite of the dishes that Jean and I shared. What's not to love about a savory pancake filled with chanterelles? Nothing... except for the fact that the 'shrooms were fighting for interior "crêpe territory" with chunks of tofu. Minor buzzkill, especially for someone who loathes the mushy, white stuff. Luckily, all it took was some creative rearranging. I politely pushed the tofu aside and proceeded to eat my portion of the crêpe. Jean and I were confused, however, by the garnishment of the daikon and mint greens, sweet 'n sour slaw, and the soy dipping sauce.
Pan-Seared Wild Bass Seared skin-on, I found this wild bass entrée nothing short of brilliant. The delicate fish sat atop an earthy heart of palm purée that was coupled with a fragrant, exotic green curry emulsion. I appreciated the use of heavier ingredients, i.e. cream, against the light, flaky bass.
Foie Gras Duck Fried Rice Can you say "overindulgence?" Duck confit, duck bacon, foie gras, shards of scrambled egg, and scallions were gently folded into a mound of buttery, perfectly-clumped and sticky white rice. Three forkfuls were more than enough.
Melted Asian Eggplant Jean, the self-professed "eggplant-oholic," suggested that we order this as a side. And I'm not going to lie, the name "melted Asian eggplant" sounded rather catchy and intriguing, albeit slightly frightening. Kind of how I like my men. Unfortunately though, it was nothing more than a greasy pile of the vegetable's innards, drizzled with, what the menu described as, "scallion oil and yuzu soy cham." Whatever that is.
In conclusion, for the duration of our meal on Tuesday evening (6:45 p.m. to 9 p.m.) our table was one of only four that was occupied. Perhaps, this was due to the fact that it was a dreary, rainy Tuesday evening, or because, Baotique has no signage from the street, creating a lack of potential "walk-in" customers. And, unless you're familiar with Covet Lounge, then you may be unaware of Baotique's existence.
I just have to wonder how a restaurant not in Anytown, U.S.A., but here, in New York City — that's virtually hidden and empty, at least on this particular evening — can stay afloat in such an expensive space and in such a competitive market. Perhaps I'm being dramatic and this just warrants a return on a weekend evening.
As to the food, there were parts of the meal that I really enjoyed — the wild mushroom crêpe and pan seared wild bass — and other aspects that I did not. I hate to sound uneducated, and hey, maybe I am - but I found the overuse of complicated ingredients to be slightly intimidating and unappetizing.
I think that many of these dishes would be much more delicious and user-friendly if they were tweaked or prepared with fewer components. Because, honestly: if hungry club/lounge-goer's from Covet are in need of a food-fix, I'm not sure how appealing the spicy beef belly or the salt & pepper sweetbreads will be. Jus' sayin'.