And Neo is notable for more than its whiteness. It also offers hope for a satisfactory ending to one of the Bay Area's longer-running culinary dramas: the peripatetic career of Lance Dean Velasquez (did you catch him in Georgia?). This impressive chef made his name at Moose's, Heritage House, and the Ritz-Carlton. We thought we'd see him gloriously showcased at Epicenter, but that venture collapsed in less than a month. Velasquez's cooking was too innovative for Jack's, which resulted in yet another move (did you catch him at Viognier?). Now he's landed at Neo.
Certainly the chef and the restaurant seem well-mated -- Velasquez's powerful, homey approach and dazzling technique give grounding and warmth to a restaurant that in less confident hands might have seemed emptily pretentious. Conversely, the setting gives the chef room to shine.
A meal at Neo is exciting. Velasquez is full of ideas, the vast majority of which work very well. But it is the perfection of the execution, the stunning performance he coaxes from quotidian ingredients, that is really breathtaking. A simple plate of a few gnocchi, dressed with a rosy tomato cream sauce and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts ($8), is turned into a remarkable experience. The smooth little dumplings dissolve in the mouth with uncanny ease, transforming in a flash from individual rotund entities into an undifferentiated element of the rich, nutty sauce -- but never dissolving on the plate.
Vegetable-purée soups ($6) are another area in which Neo excels; there is generally one on the menu. Velasquez, typically using cream, is able to magnify the flavor of the night's vegetable, so that, for example, a single spoonful of the cream of broccoli soup contains considerably more vivid fresh broccoli flavor than an equivalent mouthful of pure broccoli. (The butternut squash soup is also terrific.) The effect is wonderful, as evidenced by exclamations of pleasure periodically sounding around the room as customers try the soup.
Velasquez's philosophy with pasta seems to be to treat it not as the foundation of a dish, but as just another ingredient. In one distinctive entree ($15), tender pappardelle noodles are tossed with an intense, dark mushroom-shallot sauce, into which melt lumps of Crescenza, a mild Italian cow's milk cheese whose smooth, elastic texture adds a note of subtle luxury to the dish.
On occasion, this flavor-intense approach can result in dishes that lack subtlety. The salmon ($16) is a salmon lover's dream, but may be a bit potent for anyone else. A fillet of the fish is griddle-cooked medium rare and served atop an almost cloying purée of celeriac with a beurre rouge, a classic sauce made with butter, shallots, and red wine. But the strength and purity of the flavor works to the dish's disadvantage; the entree is probably too strongly fishy for many dispositions.
The salmon makes even the strong-flavored pot roast ($17) innocuous by comparison. As in many pot roasts, the meat is highly fibrous -- so much so that the restaurant's chic lack of toothpicks starts to feel like a discourtesy. But the texture proves to be part of the enjoyment, and the flavor is excellent, amplified by co-braised root vegetables and a helping of the dark braising liquid. Strip steak ($17) is milder than the pot roast, but more refined, and worth ordering for the accompanying creamed spinach alone, which Velasquez miraculously transforms into an exquisite delicacy.
The desserts ($7) aren't as awe-inspiring as the rest of the meal, but it's certainly a pleasure to eat them. They're more like old friends, perhaps, than stunning performers. The free-form apple tart is not, despite its name, an amorphous clutter of apples, sugar, butter, and flour on a plate, but is in fact shaped into the form of a handsome tart and baked, albeit without a pan. The crust is marvelous, very flaky and brittle, and the golden, syrupy apples are just right. It's served with house-made cinnamon ice cream, like every apple tart these days, but Neo's is bracing, more spicy than sweet, and captures a great deal of the subtlety and depth of good cinnamon.
Of late, many restaurants seem to find it almost permissible to serve bland ice creams -- generic trios of creaminess, sweetness, and coldness -- with just enough token flavor to be recognizable, but not enough that anyone would find them interesting, or want to savor each mouthful. By contrast, Neo offers an excellent high-water mark for flavor in ice cream. The espresso ice cream accompanying the chocolate pound cake is intense and not too sweet, a harmony of varied notes, while the cake itself is aggressively simple: just a slice of dense, not terribly chocolatey, cake, neither too crumbly nor too moist, with a glossy sweet icing.
Melville says whiteness "calls up a peculiar apparition in the soul," and indeed the snowy aspect of Neo causes a certain tingling of the spine, perhaps in the way that the sight of a soon-to-be-filled plate does. The food is so expressive, so satisfying, and so profoundly disproves the dearth of substance implied by the blank surfaces of the restaurant that the bold design conceit works after all. If the cuisine were less capably constructed, the restaurant might be on shakier ground. Let's hope that Lance Dean Velasquez is able to end his wanderings and enjoy a long and fruitful tenure here.
Fade to white.