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Restaurant Review - Mix it up

Carmen Cappello's harmonious fusion in Brookhaven

There are two ways to judge a restaurant. One is to hold it up to some golden standard, to compare the meal and experience to the best meal one has ever had. The other is to look at it from the point of view of what that restaurant is trying to achieve. When you're in the business of assigning stars, there's no avoiding the gold standard method. But it's often much more interesting to take into account the intentions of the restaurant, and how well it is living up to its own intentions, rather than comparing every aspect of the place to one's own ideas about perfection.

Which brings me to Mix, the Brookhaven eatery that is so trendy it could be the poster child for the hipness-gone-wild restaurant movement. The plates are small. The bar is long. The waitresses hardly seem qualified to sell food, seeing as it's obvious that none of them eat. The wine list is decent, but the 'tini list is the real draw.

The restaurant is all about scene, and in that respect, it is doing what it sets out to do well. The surprise here is that the food, while certainly falling prey to issues of style over substance, holds up its end of the bargain beautifully. This is not dead serious food, but it would be out of place if it were. Chef Carmen Cappello, who has worked for some of the country's great chefs (including Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia), is turning out some truly inventive cuisine that actually works.

The restaurant's design is like a grown-up version of the state fair fun house, with giant-sized red couches, amoeba-esque orange chandeliers, and clear glass bathroom doors that turn opaque by a special lighting trick when you turn the lock (a fact that was lost on two men I separately brought with me, who each failed to lock the door because they figured no one would walk in on them when they could plainly see that the room was occupied).

Gimmick and design is a feature of the food as well, but usually not at the expense of flavor. The bluefin tuna is served in cubes on toothpicks (Cappello perhaps borrowing the idea from the lamb lollypops at Two Urban Licks, where he also spent some time), with shoyu, sesame and cornflakes. Cornflakes? Yes, it works, in much the same way that crunchy tempura bits work in sushi rolls. Another dish that works despite itself is foie gras with barbecued eel, udon noodles and miso broth. This is one of those dishes that sounds like fusion for the sake of fusion, but the flavors and textures are harmonious — almost too harmonious, in fact. My only complaint about the dish is its lack of a counterpoint. There is no crunch, no acid for the rich flavors to play against.

The lack of a counterpoint is a problem I came across in a number of dishes. The gnocchi with lobster, corn, English peas and sweet garlic was masterful in almost every way, the gnocchi pillowy and delicate, and the lobster sweet and buttery. But there was no peak, nothing that brought the dish together or allowed the flavors to really shine. For a dish with so many elements, it was surprisingly one-note.

Many of the best dishes are the ones that don't try too hard. The calamari with sambal dressing and cilantro is near perfect bar food — the calamari tender with a fantastic crispy crunch, offset by the pleasing spice of the sambal. I could eat buckets of the stuff, especially washed down with a something-or-other 'tini. The pizzettas are also satisfying bar food, and the addition of pedigreed ingredients like truffle oil or fennel pollen is never out of place and does nothing to spoil the fun.

The biggest surprise on the menu came when we ordered quail over braised greens with pomegranate. I would never expect to find perfect, tender Southern-style greens under a quail in a trendy, fusiony tapas restaurant, but here they were. With just the right amount of salt and vinegar kick, they made a fantastic accompaniment to the quail. The pomegranate seeds were attractive but a distraction, and the crunch unnervingly made me think of little quail bones.

There are instances where the flavors spin out of control into the realm of disaster. The barbecued baby octopus is a gorgeous-looking dish, with micro-greens, cherry tomatoes and avocado forming a colorful forest around the octopus. But take a bite and the freshness of the dish is obliterated by the sweetness of the barbecued octopus and overpowering wasabi. Leave out the culturally confused barbecue and wasabi and you'd have a pretty and pleasing Mediterranean dish. As it is, it's just a mess.

Desserts also had me puzzled. I commend the chef for trying something different with his warm chocolate cake, forgoing the easy sales of the ubiquitous molten cake. But there is little chocolate to this chocolate cake, with nothing to fill the void. The potato donuts would have been delicious if they weren't raw in the middle.

There are a few tricks to dining at Mix: Unless you specifically ask for the food to be paced, you will end up with all your tapas on the table at once. Wine by the glass is a better deal than by the bottle — the pours are generous. Ask for Alexis. She's hot and she can wait tables. Imagine that.

Mix does exactly what it sets out to do. At every turn, the restaurant is fun, and there's little downside to that. By its very nature as an of-the-moment hot spot, Mix's staying power is questionable. But Cappello is a talent worth watching. His food has the potential to grow and become more thoughtful, much like a giddy party girl maturing into a fascinating woman.