Stepping into Bank Cafe for a drink, I felt like I'd stumbled upon a rare animal outside of its natural habitat. Bars this sleek are normally found off the streets of San Francisco or Amsterdam. Hip Faubourg Marigny neighbors crowded the art deco bar, a relic of straight lines and glowing orange columns. The staff wears only black. The building, a former bank, has an air of decadence -- we drink where responsible people once saved for their retirement. Yet after eating dinner at Bank Cafe, I left feeling that although the high-energy bar and the high-end kitchen share one space, they sometimes seem unsure of what to make of each other.
Daniel Esses brings a sterling resume -- Cafe Degas, Peristyle and Restaurant August -- and enormous talent to his first post as executive chef. He also brings two styles of cooking: half the menu displays a graceful bravado that balances a range of flavors on a single plate. One evening, I had a wonderful appetizer of breaded and fried feta topped with two interlocked shrimp, each wearing a crisp prosciutto collar. Vinegary mussels and white anchovies on the edge of the plate cut the feta's creaminess. Another night I tried the whimsical lamb cigars, tightly wound egg rolls stuffed with stewed lamb and pine nuts and served with a sauce that alone tasted like chili con carne yet perfectly complemented the meaty lamb. They were strong first courses, and both were assertive enough to satisfy bar patrons seeking a quick snack between martinis.
Sometimes Esses' enthusiasm led to excess. Quails stuffed with duck liver and veal, a delicious mixture that resembled a crumbly country pate, rested on a bed of polenta generously spiked with sage. The strong herb taste kept the two creamy flavors distinct, but after eating several bites of polenta and half of a quail I was too full to continue and wished for a lighter side dish. The watercress salad with grilled shrimp was dressed in toasted garlic habanero vinaigrette, which overpowered the carefully picked greens and masked the taste of blood oranges.
What I remember best from my meals at Bank Cafe, however, are not the bold creations but the subtle touches in the less showy dishes. A tender rabbit over a stew of winter vegetables was infused with a faint sweetness from a fig moutard. One rainy night, I ordered a seared redfish fillet suspended on fingerling potatoes above an earthy saffron broth. It was warm and filling, and the bright basil oil across the fillet offered a preview of spring.
The beef dishes were even more impressive. The description of the hanger steak promised something complicated: a steak marinated in paprika, cold smoked, pan-seared and finished with a pecan and bacon demi-glace. On the plate, the long list of ingredients was transformed into a unified deep taste. The perfectly cooked steak came with sides of Lyonnaise potatoes and haricot vert as good as any found in a Parisian bistro. The osso buco stayed close to tradition, with the veal shanks collapsing into a rissotto that tasted one part rice, one part gravy and one part butter. Like the steak, I remember the osso buco for its restrained sophistication that made it one of the better incarnations of that dish that I've had.
I would return to Bank Cafe for comforting food like the redfish in saffron broth or the osso buco, if only dining there were more comfortable. One evening, as I ended a meal with a delicious almond rum cake piled like an abstract sculpture over sweet plantains, a laughing gaggle of friends entered. Their voices echoed off the cacophonous, hard surfaces, and I felt like I was trapped under a football stadium in the final minutes of a close game.
More than the loud room, though, the style of service at Bank Cafe often makes it feel more like a bar than a restaurant. On several occasions, I hesitated inside the door until the bartender noticed me and shouted from across the room that I should just grab a table. A well-selected cheese plate arrived with two forks and no knife to cut the wedges of cheese. Wine was ordered but never delivered; water glasses sat empty all evening. As I watched the friendly wait staff sprint to cover tables at opposite ends of the long room, it appeared that even their best efforts to provide the elegant and attentive service that Esses' food deserves would be undermined by how the dining room was managed. The odd disconnect between the front of the house and the Esses' ambitious menu seems like design, as if dispensing with formalities would make the dining experience relaxed instead of bewildering. When I'm in the neighborhood, I might stop by the Bank Cafe for a whiskey and an appetizer. If I hear that Esses has moved to a quieter location with more traditional service, however, I'll be one of the first to make reservations to see what this talented young chef puts on the menu.