Michael Taus is back. Not that he was ever gone for long. But the veteran chef—who got his start at Charlie Trotter's the year after it opened before embarking on a nearly 20-year run at Zealous—became a bit of a ronin when he closed that restaurant's second incarnation two years ago. Oh, he'd opened Duchamp before that, but he was long gone by the time it closed the same year. Since then there have been a few low-profile consulting gigs (Da Lobsta and the ill-fated Coppervine), but Taus, by his own account, has spent much of his time traveling.
That's certainly reflected in his latest menu, which makes lots of references to various global cuisines—mostly Asian, but also Spanish, North African, Greek, and Italian, all represented in the framework of the classic French technique he was trained in. But that's not to say Taus hasn't always approached food with a polyethnic toolbox. This sort of Trotterian worldview was in evidence as far back as 1993, when he was serving things like Asian crab cakes with mango-basil sauce. There was a dosa with curry on the menu when he closed Zealous, and there's one on the menu at his new Taus Authentic, in the space occupied briefly by Prasino.
Unlike the common thin, crisp Indian crepe, this dosa is soft like a pancake, enveloping roasted sunchokes. A smear of mild red curry dotted with golden raisins is a more perceptible nod to the subcontinent. Taus's Asian accents are frequently just as subtle, sometimes enough to seem absent. I couldn't catch a hint of the umami-powered dried-seafood XO sauce that was supposed to be served with the beef tartare. The beef itself is excellent, but you'd expect the contrast between something so mild and something so strong to be more striking. Same goes for a lusciously fatty Berkshire pork shoulder and spongy Chinese radish cakes bathing in a pool of what is said to be kimchi stew, but which has no heat, no funk, and no vegetation. Similarly, the Korean shrimp pancake served under a fluke fillet turned out to be just a few disarticulated bites.
But it isn't just Asian flavors that are subdued. A lobster and oxtail ravioli duo with bacon and snap peas soaks in a vibrantly colored sauce said to be made from the shellfish itself, but any seafood flavor was about as undetectable as the sweet chile vinaigrette that's supposed to be in there too.
Some dishes taste as if all they need is a hit of acid or salt to bring out their natural flavors. A veal cheek pot-au-feu is just so: the meat is silky and tender, but awfully bland wallowing among roasted root vegetables in its wan stewing liquid. I expect that the ricotta tart with arugula pesto will overcome a similar dullness this summer when heirloom tomatoes and greens can actually come from somewhere nearby. In a few cases not even bacon can save the day, as when big chunks of crispy pork belly overpower delicate scraps of hamachi crudo.
This apparently willful overrestraint is confusing, but it isn't a consistent problem. Some dishes taste just fine. A bowl of bouncy cavatelli with duck confit and enormous trumpet mushrooms has a warm sweetness from the creamy kohlrabi puree the pasta's tossed with. A combination of braised octopus and chorizo, a dish that's become increasingly overcommon, is supplemented by cannellini beans and a bracing piquillo pepper relish. Thick lamb chops with mint gremolata and fried brussels sprouts are plated with lasagna-like eggplant gateau in a Moroccan-style sauce heavily redolent of baking spice, while Taus's aunt's fried chicken has a hint of cinnamon in the batter.
One dish is so out of step with the muted flavors on this menu I was almost convinced it was a mistake: a side of long beans with boiled peanuts and Parmesan that has an intense salty sourness reminiscent of Burmese tea salad. It grew on me.
Desserts such as a vanilla panna cotta with pomelo granita have more of the texture of gelatin, but a substantial apple tart, dressed with lemon-thyme syrup, bourbon caramel, and a scoop of buttermilk ice cream, seems approachably honest. And in a nod to Taus's Czech heritage he pairs a lemon-goat cheese kolachky with a fruit dumpling and poppy -seed ice cream.
To wash this all down, there are 90-some wines, many reasonably priced, plus 16 by the glass and nine custom cocktails, including a potion of sherry, walnut liqueur, and Czech digestive bitters that would be best drunk with dessert.
Taus himself is gregarious and ever present in the dining room, a vibrant figure who warms up the large but segmented dining room. It's a presence at odds with flavors that just aren't popping the way the menu promises. v