A Gourmet in Party Central

Chef Hammi gets fresh at Himmarshee

This pastorale of Garden of Eden foodstuffs, while well-intentioned, is, I fear, about as authentic as Pamela Anderson's rack, but I'm certainly willing to suspend disbelief for the two hours it takes me to eat dinner. We liked our meal at Himmarshee very much, and we liked it even better when we considered that as a pre- or post-theater pit stop, it's just about unrivaled. There's no other restaurant in the area that combines this level of culinary inventiveness with good service and a casual vibe. Noisy but not unbearably so. Crowded in a good way. The people sitting around you look like the kind of folks you'd get along with if your paths happened to cross. The menu, which we were told "changes daily," doesn't change in the ambitious way you might find at, say, the Four Seasons. We're talking maybe the fish might be grouper or snapper or Key West pompano, or they might have halibut or dolphin. Himmarshee began as moderately priced, but you can't unequivocally call it that now. There are still bargains: The small plates and salads run $8 to $14 (for tossed salad and veal sirloin, with day-boat scallops and English pea purses in between). Your humanely slaughtered chicken will set you back just $22, and this unpretentious dinner — the kind of thing you might sit down to back on the old farm — comes with roasted potatoes, spinach, charcoaled onions, and corn. Crab meat ravioli with toasted almonds and curry sauce is $20. But the finer stuff — the dishes that must indeed be "chef-driven," are all suckered up around the $30 mark, like barnacles stuck to a log.

For the convenience of the area (downtown, close to the theaters), the higher prices are worth paying. Dishes like chestnut-honey-glazed duckling served with wild rice studded with apricots and cherries, a scattering of macadamia nuts, and port reduction ($26) are pleasantly subtle references to the chef's Moroccan roots. An appetizer of salmon carpaccio with seaweed salad ($9) perched on crisp wontons and drizzled with sharp wasabi cream and sweet soy sauce is a mouth dazzler. I was less enthusiastic about my taquitos ($9) — their shells had the consistency of a takeout egg roll, and the flavor of the "homemade" chorizo inside, chopped fine, was lost under the bittersweet punch of the mole sauce.

Yes indeed, this is contemporary international; we attention-deficient Americans like our restaurants modeled on Epcot. Over here, a Caribbean island, where your grilled jerk-spiced dolphin ($27) sits on a mound of island rice laced with mango and bananas. France is represented by tomato pistou and haricots verts, Italy by orecchiette with homemade sausage and grilled radicchio. Still, there are unexpected tweaks to most of it — our jerked dolphin was napped in a curry sauce redolent of cardamom and spiked with cilantro. Pan-roasted halibut paired edamame beans with crimini mushrooms in tarragon broth. France and Japan, meet Alaska.

We loved our grilled pork tenderloin ($25), served medium rare, which came with boniato mash (as satisfying as sweet potatoes but fluffier and less cloying), sautéed rapini for a hint of bitter, and a lovely, piquant sage reduction.

Our waitress advised me to order my wild spring Chinook salmon ($29) medium rare, which of course I did, but it came out well done, having lost every hint of wildness. It might as well have been farm-raised, for all the flavor it hadn't. But crushed roasted cauliflower with truffle essence in a deep beurre noire was a superb consolation prize.

We lingered over a dessert torte ($8) — a simply prepared, head-clearing little cake that couldn't have held another eighth ounce of chocolate, spooning it up with cinnamon ice cream, and basked in yet another rush of assertive flavors.

This muscular approach to seasoning, along with a bit of dilettantish dabbling in global cuisines, has always been a drawback at Himmarshee — the menu really has no focus. You end up eating wasabi-drizzled raw salmon as a prelude to lamb chops wrapped in prosciutto; the effect is not unpleasant, but it's disconcerting. A truly chef-driven menu would have a less wobbly center. Still, this approach may be a practical solution for feeding the crowd that throngs these sidewalks — the chef's preference for intense flavors is probably a response to palates that have been corrupted by at least a couple of martinis.

It takes a strong pesto to penetrate the fog of gin.

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