Oldham

All Dressed Up 

A restaurant teaches the Oldham Hotel new tricks.

The irony about Oldham, the sleek restaurant carved out of the eighty-year-old Oldham Hotel's first floor, is that anything old has been ripped out, cast off, discarded. Now, the space -- which had been unoccupied for decades -- is a two-level dining room, done up in a cool palette of slate, blue and dove, that is as stark and sterile as an operating room.

Lest you miss the analogy, the servers wear white pants, shirts and shoes (like orderlies); ice water is poured from beakers; and the cream for coffee arrives in a frosted test tube. The tables are set with such clinical precision (flat, square plates, napkins as neatly folded as bandages), an unwary first-time diner might wonder whether he's getting lunch or a colonoscopy.

Restaurateur Nick McNeil, who designed both the dining room and the dimly lit nightclub downstairs, is either on the cutting edge of design (controversial British artist Damien Hirst brought a similar modern sensibility to the medical-themed Pharmacy restaurant in London) or taking a minimalist step backward to the industrial look of the Reagan Decade. The first time I had dinner at Oldham, seated in a translucent plastic chair and awash in a Listermint-blue glow from a wall of colored glass, I felt as if I had been swept into a novel by Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis. In fact, if the young couple sitting next to us had pulled out a vial of cocaine (instead of that cell phone, to call the baby-sitter), I wouldn't have blinked an eye.

But Oldham isn't the hipster hangout I thought it would be. On one weeknight visit, my friend Karen and I were the youngest diners by at least a decade, we noticed as we noshed on salmon cakes and baby green salads. We're both Baby Boomers, so that's no tribute to the youthful zest of the place. But halfway through our meal, a table of geeky thirtysomethings made a noisy entrance, all sporting hoop earrings and ugly mall clothes. The group's femme fatale, squeezed into a taupe catsuit, sported the exact same hairdo that Linda Evans wore through the entire run of Dynasty.

"See," I whispered to Karen, "it's so 1980s."

"You just don't get it," said Karen, who found the restaurant's elegantly spartan aesthetic to be refreshing and "extremely now." She noted that a mutual friend, an elfin hairdresser who wears the snappiest clothes, is a huge Oldham fan. I can see why. The dramatic but uncluttered setting is the perfect stage for making a noticeable entrance in high-style duds. After all, Karen's costly, dazzling Giuseppe Zanotti shoes wouldn't get a second glance at the Old Country Buffet.

And if you don't think style means a lot at Oldham, take a gander at the sentence printed at the bottom of the single-page dinner menu: "Partial wardrobe provided by A/X Armani Exchange."

"What part of your wardrobe comes from Armani?" I asked one of the tan, blonde-streaked waiters. (They all look as if they were ripped from the pages of an International Male catalog.) He pointed to the little square, gray cotton money pouch tied with apron strings around his waist. That's not wardrobe, honey; it's barely an accessory.

Chef Kevin Smith's menu is considerably more stylish than the staff's uniforms. True, he uses a liberal hand on the fresh tarragon (it seems to be in almost every dish except the Key lime mousse), but when he's in top form, the food is as electrifying as the "Euromix Beat" playing over the sound system.

On a visit with my other high-fashion friend, Carmen, I pounced on our appetizers, which get minimal description on the menu but display plenty of artistic appeal on the plate: Little triangles of baked polenta are served like miniature club sandwiches, layered with thin slices of fresh tomato, goat cheese and bits of spinach. The sautéed wild mushrooms are finely chopped and spread across crusty wedges of grilled rustic bread, grouped around a heap of shiny sautéed spinach. Fat, crispy salmon cakes, artistically laden with colorful flecks of green, yellow and red pepper and purple onion, come alongside a jumble of mixed greens splashed with a tart balsamic vinaigrette.

Creative salads make the scene, too, such as the "seasonal vegetable" concoction I fell in love with on a hot summer night: a bowl of cold potato wedges, chopped asparagus, lemony wax beans, glistening cherry tomatoes and mushrooms, tossed together with delicate greens and vinaigrette (and tarragon galore). Even better was the mountain of warm chopped mushrooms, fresh from the sauté pan, spooned onto fresh spinach and dappled with a piquant, creamy gorgonzola dressing and a sprinkle of toasted nuts.

Only seven entrées appear on the menu (and typically one or two daily specials, which the servers recite with little enthusiasm), and be warned, the grilled pork chop isn't served with the misspelled "rasberry" sauce but a port wine reduction. The fork-tender beef tenderloin does come, I'm happy to say, with the head-swimming cabernet sauvignon sauce as promised (although the roasted rosemary new potatoes had too little rosemary and too much--yes--tarragon). And pesto-crusted lamb chops are crusty, juicy and fragrant with basil and olive oil.

Chef Smith's seared sea bass, as visually sumptuous as a Henry Moore sculpture, stands erect, layered with vegetables over a mound of black and white bean relish. On the night I supped with the chic Karen, she gracefully twirled a fork into fettuccine blended with summer vegetables, sautéed snap peas that still had a satisfying crunch, asparagus done al dente and papery shavings of pungent parmegiano reggiano.

"It's the perfect pasta for August," said Karen. "Very light, wonderful textures."

The dessert assortment, while not elaborate, is also perfect for a sultry summer night: a frosted martini glass filled with a "mousse" -- more of a foamy zabaglione, really -- of mildly citrus custard, splashed with a glossy green syrup; a dense, fudgy flourless chocolate cake that tastes like a cold candy bar; and a firm, sweet pear, poached in zinfandel until it's the color of amber, then sliced and served with a dollop of marscapone cheese whipped together with a delicate vanilla liqueur.

The service is as efficient and polished as the china and glassware, and as night falls, the waiters in white seem to actually glimmer in a haze of indigo light as the room's east wall changes color from lilac to a soothing turquoise. By 10 p.m., the music gets louder as the entire restaurant metamorphoses from a place where people quietly eat and talk to a sophisticated nightclub mobbed by young multi-taskers: They can flirt, drink, smoke and gab on cell phones, all at the same time.

Oldham is all dressed up with someplace to go. The question remains whether chef Smith's distinctive menu and this restaurant's highly individual sense of style will become a classic, or only hold its looks until next season.

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