Love at first sight. Yes, it happened when I visited Melt restaurant in 2005. The modern room, done up in shades of rich chocolate and cream, seemed as far away from Park Slope’s stroller brigade as one could hope for. The setting was chic enough to feel festive yet not in the least self-conscious.
At that time, chef Brian Bunger was turning out classic American fare with a few global touches, and I was as charmed by the meal as the ambience.
I revisited Melt a couple of months ago when an interim chef was running the kitchen. While nothing had changed in the dining room, the place lost some of it sparkle. The menu still focused on modern American fare, and what I tasted wasn’t badly executed, but the food lacked the confidence and sophistication of the earlier dinner.
After the eatery’s owner Muguette (pronounced “Mu-Get”) Siem A Sjoe, closed for a couple of weeks in late January, she reopened in February with an expanded kitchen and new chef Patrik Landberg. The difference in the mood of the place and the cuisine is profound.
There’s a renewed energy in the air. I could see the enthusiasm in the eyes of the wait staff as they described the dishes, and it was visible at the tables where diners lingered over their meal, sharing dishes and, like the couple beside me, ordering a second and then a third port with dessert to prolong the experience.
Landberg (formerly of Ulrika’s Restaurant and the Roger Smith Hotel in Manhattan) brings a set of formidable skills to the table. Like his predecessors, his menu continues to reference the cuisine of this country.
“The food is contemporary American with a Swedish touch,” said Landberg, who grew up and trained in Sweden. “Modern Scandinavian cooking is really like today’s American cooking. It includes ingredients from Spain, Italy and France with French technique.”
Tuna tartar isn’t difficult to come by in better borough restaurants, but I hadn’t found one before my recent visit to Melt that was as vibrant as Landberg’s version. He mounds buttery squares of the fish, barely dressed in a lemony vinaigrette, over a slice of nutty, creamy avocado. A bit of cucumber relish brightened with dill and a hint of garlic is its partner on the plate. The freshness of the herb and vegetable complements the richness of the seafood, while a smear of nose-tingling hot mustard serves as a spotlight, illuminating the clean taste of the ingredients.
Only a heart-sinking step on the scale that day could keep me from eating every last creamy, truffle-dusted little pillow of deliciousness in a generous serving of gnocchi. I defy anyone to find a lighter example of the dumplings — or one with a silkier cream sauce. Landberg judiciously employs small cubes of crunchy pancetta to lend a bit of smokiness. With chefs going hog wild for bacon, his restraint is commendable.
It’s the play of crunch and moist fish that make the Maine lobster dumplings so memorable. Pieces of the sweet crustacean are heaped into flaky, crisp pastry crescents. They’re lovely as is, but more compelling with the mix of roasted cashew nuts, a bit of frisee salad and a puddle of vinaigrette intensified with “sambal ulek” (an Indonesian paste seasoned with ground chilies).
Nothing struck me as particularly exciting on the roundup of “big plates,” but what arrived at the table was visually arresting and palate pleasing. The “pan-roasted sea scallops” arrived with several plump mollusks, their edges seared until brittle and their centers moist and nearly creamy. Properly firm yet lush risotto absorbed some of the scallop’s light, white wine stock while a few roasted spears of asparagus and tomatoes, their sweetness concentrated from the slow bake in the oven, finished the plate.
Pistachio-crusted salmon played second fiddle to the suave scallops. It, too, was beautifully presented with the green of grilled asparagus and spinach playing off the pink of the flesh, but the nut coating distracted somewhat from the silkiness of the fish.
No one can accuse Landberg of phoning in the desserts. Thought has gone into the concept as well as the plating of the creative finales. One pastry of cream-filled white cake covered in a cloak of pale green marzipan, resembled a lovely little sea creature but tasted like overly sweet birthday cake.
The other offerings didn’t disappoint. There was vanilla panna cotta, lightly scented with tongue-tingling star anise. The cream was lush but airy like a mousse and served elegantly in a rocks glass topped with ripe berries. A peanut-butter-and-jelly cheesecake sounds like something you’d bake for a child’s birthday, but the pastry was surprisingly dense, like a very moist cookie, and bits of tart strawberry jam studded throughout the filling balanced the saltiness.
I hope Landberg remains in Melt’s kitchen for a long time so everyone who wants to try his cooking can. With the way chefs jump from place to place in this town though, that may be wishful thinking. In case my comment is too subtle, that was a hint. Here’s another: Get yourself to Melt.
Melt (440 Bergen St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues in Park Slope) accepts MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $17-$24. The restaurant serves dinner seven days a week and brunch on the weekend from 11 am-4 pm. “Taste like Tuesdays” is a five-course tasting menu for $20 held each week. For $40, each course is paired with wine. Subway: 2, 3 to Bergen Street. For information, call (718) 230-5925 or visit www.meltrestaurant.c….