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Go Dog Go

Let's go to the dogs tonight: Taste has canines and tasty cuisine.
Tom Jenkins

Urban bistro. It's a familiar culinary idiom, but what does it mean? Maybe Paris. Paris is urban. They love bistros in Paris, where the word means "pub." They love dogs there, too. Sidewalks groan under the accumulated evidence. Leashes are woven through the cafe tables--kinky culinary bondage with a bark.

Taste classifies itself as an urban bistro. The billing sinks in quick. On the far wall hangs a shelf loosely stocked with upright wine bottles and dogs. Little framed snapshots of dogs--in all sizes, shapes, hues and slobbering tongue lengths--crowd the shelf. They're flanked by a couple of books on hounds. The opposite wall is a wine rack.

Do wine and dogs pair well? Dogs and beer, yeah. But wine? You could argue that some red wines smell as if the terroir has gone terrier, but not much more. Maybe brunch on the Taste patio answers the question. Everyone seems to have a pooch. It isn't long before alarm sweeps through the small crowd, just after a puddle appears next to an Akita. The crowd relaxes after it's discovered the spot is slosh from a plastic drinking bowl. A sheltie at the next table growls at the Akita. The Akita homes in on the sheltie and steals a few slurps from its water bowl--a stiff middle finger in dog vernacular perhaps.

Overall, this is a successful urban bistro brunch. No leg became a fireplug. No scoop was deployed. No dog owner was threatened with snarling lawyers. When the dog-less man at a far table began tearing into his fried chicken and waffles, braying hounds didn't circle his chair. Time for some wine.

Taste owners Jonathon Calabrese and Joe Hickey are apparently as passionate about wine as they are about dogs. Dig into the black Taste dinner menu, past the cheeses and soups and salads and entrées, and you'll find a lineup littered with food-friendly wines. Sure, the back pages are loaded with plenty of cabernet, chardonnay and merlot, but think of this as list ballast. The front of the list sloshes with barbera, cabernet franc (a Foris from Oregon, for instance), pinot noir, Austrian Grüner Veltliner; hell, there's even a couple of German Rieslings. How many lists admit those?

Eggs need acid, and you could run a car battery on most of the stuff coming out of New Zealand, like the Giesen Riesling. Stinking of citrus and peach through a backdrop of blossoms, the wine slashes across the palate with crisp green apple followed by a bite of minerals on the finish. It's a hell of a wine with poached eggs, which crown the smoked salmon napoleon.

The dish is tall. Two poached eggs rest on top like a pair of eyeballs. Below folds of clean, thin smoked salmon is a crisp spinach latke (a potato pancake) that grows moist once the fork probes beyond the edges. At the base is large and lush roasted portobello mushroom. Portobellos are problematic things. When presented in full heft, they can be leaky sponges that drool monotonous earthy slurry, swamping whatever it touches. Portobellos have to be schooled and refined. Here, they are. The cap is coated in oil and seasoned with pepper, thyme, rosemary and garlic before it's washed in Worcestershire. The mushroom has a subtle sting, meshing with the eggs and salmon smoke even as it foils them (the latke adds textural contrast). The only problem is those poached eggs: While one had a firm runny yolk, the other was overcooked and hard.

Vegetarian frittata is a little dry but loaded with fresh flora including peppers, slightly caramelized onions and tomato. It's offset by a pomodoro sauce composed of yellow tomatoes, artichoke hearts, garlic and cilantro set in white wine.

Taste omelette is a changeable brunch dish, with Sunday whims dictating composition. Here layers of fluffy egg blanket shreds of sweet crab mixed with avocado. A tasty hash of purple potato bits, bacon, onion and poblano peppers sprawls nearby.

Braised short ribs are linked with eggs, too. The meat is chewy and moist, bathed in a flood of reduced veal stock flavored with a mirepoix composed of carrot, celery and onion fringed with herbs. The Riesling didn't flinch.

The sunny dog disposition of the brunch patio surrenders to the blindness of faux romanticism at night. Ceilings reach high into the black industrial stratosphere, the only gleam coming from the thick ribbons of shiny metal ductwork that seem to suck up light from votive candles in a strained effort to disperse it. Tables are tucked into dark corners, some near long dark purple curtains behind which the kitchen lurks. Chefs and handlers scurry in the long narrow room, almost luxurious in size. Shadows are so formidable that it is impossible to read the menu and wine list without penlights.

Walls are deep red--a perfect chromatic impression of the sun-dried tomato soup. In the dusk of the dining room the soup almost looks black, save for the oval tops of mozzarella that break the surface. A third mozzarella ball is shrouded in dark green, shielded by a mint leaf. The soup is intensely extracted with metallic teeth, a little acidic burn and a shadow of sweetness.

Cheese plates can be had, too. Chosen fresh slices are propped against bunches of fat black grapes. There is a patch of apricot chutney and a balsamic reduction on one end of the plate.

Like the smoked salmon napoleon, salt cod is tall, but not nearly as stately. Cod curing is outsourced, and the stuff is waxy, brittle near the edges and thoroughly uninteresting. Yet things get good where the fish sits: a bed of fingerling potatoes blanched and tossed with a smoked paprika mayonnaise. This slightly tangy potato salad soaks in a fried parsley sauce that's essentially a yellow olive oil slick pocked with tiny shriveled green flecks of parsley--hot points of briny flavor, seemingly stolen from the fish.

Taste is a dunk for Calabrese and Hickey, who got their restaurateuring feet damp with Savory, an evening dinner house etched out of their Legal Grounds coffee shop in Lakewood. Also fed by the Taste kitchen is State and Allen Lounge, which serves sandwiches and bar nibbles, and the Allen Street Market and Deli, which serves meats, pizzas and sandwiches.

Taste's culinary ambitions are, for the most part, expressed clearly. The food is modest and thoughtful. Bricked and grilled game hen, glistening in a tarry tamarind honey glaze, is brined in a mixture similar to the glaze before it's grilled and slathered. This deepens the flavors and allows them to leach nearly to the bone. It also changes the texture, making it chewier and heartier, though juices still flow.

Lamb en croûte looks like a trio of wallets pilfered and dropped on a collection plate. Sections of rosy lamb are wrapped tightly in phyllo and dropped in a pomegranate demi-glace. Yet the highlight of the plate rests atop a bunch of vigorous asparagus stalks: a cone of cauliflower flan. The puff is creamy and rich, with a tamed cauliflower flavor that emerges on the finish.

Like the lamb, the seared yellowfin tuna has a side more compelling than the centerpiece, though the tuna in ginger rémoulade sauce is good. A simple crisp jasmine rice cake--formed into a puck and sautéed--breathes sweetness through its delicate heartiness. Taste's bistro bite is fiercer than its urban bark. 2400 Allen St. Open 6-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 6-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. Open for Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. $$$


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