Simon's Symbiosis

In a previous life, when I wrote for a travel magazine, I kept up a running argument with one of the advertising sales representatives. "Without the revenue I bring in, you wouldn't have a job," she'd tease after locking up an account such as American Express.

"Without the text I create," I'd fling back, "you wouldn't have a product to sell."

Of course, we were both right. Call it codependency. A magazine simply can't publish without revenue, just as it can't exist without stories. Much as we were loath to admit it, we needed each other.

Some of the best restaurants experience a similar dynamic. Executive chefs, with their creative menus and kitchen skills, often feel uniquely responsible for the success of the establishment, while the restaurateur, operating the financial end of things, can feel certain he's the one holding the business together. The result is an uneasy partnership, a tension that is often communicated to the diner.

The presence of this peculiar vibe usually indicates that something about the eatery will soon change. Normally that change means the chef finds a new position. And while I try not to take sides, I admit I more readily follow a chef than a restaurateur.

Chef Kerry Simon has been easy to follow. Highly visible -- a good cook with good looks -- Simon has always made well-publicized if seemingly abrupt moves, from his post at Blue Star in the Raleigh Hotel to Starfish to Max's South Beach. I liked him best at Max's, where the upscale-diner feel of the place complemented his urban-cowboy creations; and the business, judging by the packed reservation book, was apparently booming.

So I was unprepared for the whispers I heard last spring that something was going awry at Max's, and wondered why I hadn't sensed the vibe the last time I dined there. I was delighted to realize why: In a slight twist on the dissolution of a partnership, this time it was the restaurateur, Dennis Max, who was departing. Everything would change -- the name from Max's to Mercury, the decor from black and dark woods to black and silver, the owner from Dennis Max to Kenneth Jaworski. Everything would change, that is, except for the chef. Kerry Simon was staying put.

I think Dennis Max is a great restaurateur, an excellent judge of culinary talent and a good manager, and I'll eat in any of his restaurants if I'm in his vicinity. But for me it's always the chef who makes the magic happen, and I was eager to see how Simon would work with Jaworski. The two collaborated on a new modern American menu that puts Jaworski's Eastern European heritage into the stylish mix. But aside from a couple of items, such as duck-stuffed pierogi and caviar accompanied by Polish vodka, the only departure I could detect from Simon's past style was the increase in prices -- the entrees range from $16 to $32, but only two main courses are actually under the $20 mark. The menu seemed a distillation of his South Florida experiences, culling the successful recipes (with the exception of meat loaf, which doesn't appear this time around) and deleting the failures. As a result, the silver-curtained Mercury, a sleekly minimalist, comfortably lighted, high-ceiling space, is Simon at his creative best.

The duck-stuffed pierogi appetizer is the first item on the heavy list (I mean that literally -- the menu is made of metal and looks like the positive proof of a photographer's plate). Served with a roasted mushroom sauce and and a warm cabbage salad, the two turnovers were eye-catching. They were also mouth-watering -- chunks of dark, juicy duck in a crusty, puffy shell reminiscent of an empanada. The vibrant mushroom sauce and sweet mild cabbage were ideal partners.

We also enjoyed a starter of caviar pie, a crisp potato pancake topped with sour cream, chopped egg, green onions, and more sour cream. The top layer comprised four different types of "caviar" in pielike wedges: bright orange salmon roe and three flavored caviars -- black jalapeno, golden citron, and neon green wasabi (this one was replaced with Tabasco at my second visit). A knowledgeable waiter informed us ahead of time that the flavored fish eggs were tobiko, the tiny roe from flying fish often used in Japanese restaurants, which took well to the spices. Truth be known, I missed the pungency of real caviar (only eggs from sturgeon can be legally sold under this designation), but as long as diners are informed of the difference, I have no real complaint.

A mellow starter played off the Vietnamese spring roll. Chunks of grilled lobster tail were partnered with mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, cooked rice noodles, enoki, and avocado -- all of it wrapped in rice paper and served cold. It was exquisitely fresh, but the lemongrass dipping sauce, which looked like typical sweet-and-sour and tasted like it too, lacked any defining character.

Steamers appeared differently than promised on the menu. Rather than cooked in Anchor Steam beer and served with drawn butter, the dozen and a half whitewater clams were drowning in buttery sauce and garnished with wedges of grilled bread. The tender little nuggets were tasty and fresh, though the sauce proved too briny. Roasted red and yellow pepper soup was also too salty, but delicious nonetheless. The puree of yellow peppers met the red peppers halfway across the bowl. In the middle, a parcel of grilled radicchio contained an oozing square of smoked mozzarella.

Both times I dined at Mercury, however, main courses easily eclipsed the starters. A smoked pork tenderloin was delicious, propped on a mound of spicy sweet potato hash. Cooked medium-rare, the pork was pink and juicy, curry paste seared into the sizzling crust. Stewed Granny Smith apples were a tart take on the old pork-chops-'n'-applesauce tune.

Equally flavorful, the lemon-chicken sausage was a real treat. Thick slices of chicken sausage, wonderfully succulent and vividly scented with lemon, were scattered around a centerpiece of rich Tuscan risotto with white onions, chopped red tomatoes, and forest-green broccoli rabe.

A fourteen-ounce dry-aged Black Angus steak, grilled and presented with its natural juices, was a little chewy. The pile of lightly salted pommes frites it featured, however, could put a Frenchman to shame. These were fantastic little fries, crisp as potato chips and just as eagerly devoured.

The taters accompanying the grilled tenderloin of beef, though, took first honors. Mashed with wasabi, they were addictive, as was the filet itself. The steak was marinated in teriyaki and stuffed with a filling of red and yellow peppers, grilled tomatoes, and onions. Easily my favorite dish.

I've always believed Simon to be more at home with sturdy foods such as steaks and chops rather than delicate ones like seafood, but his fish dishes were expertly tuned. Chilean sea bass with shiitake mushrooms was from the Jonathan Eismann school of fish, so flaky and tender it practically melted on the plate. Simple earthy flavors were helped along by gorgeous Yukon gold boiled potatoes, dressed in the subtly fennel-ish herb chervil. Miso-marinated ahi tuna was also a terrific cut of fish, thick and steaklike. Charred just a bit too much on the outside, the tuna was as red as beef inside, testimony to its sushi-quality freshness. The fish went well with a hearty white bean salad, presented warm with cherry tomatoes and a garnish of mint.

Portions, particularly the steaks, are hefty enough, but don't let that detract from dessert. Comfortably familiar and just a touch innovative (as well as expensive, at nine dollars), the key lime cannoli sounded tempting, but the strawberry-rhubarb shortcake proved juicier. And the chocolate crepes, one filled with chocolate mousse and the other with sambuca-flavored mousse, were delectable, especially when paired with the Frieze's white-mint ice cream.

A graphic designer from Buffalo, Kenneth Jaworski might be an unlikely partner for Kerry Simon, whose resume includes stints at the Plaza Hotel's Edwardian Room, the Lafayette, and La Cote Basque, all in New York. But the vibe so far seems positive, the operative word symbiotic.

Mercury
764 Washington Ave, 532-0070. Open Tuesday - Thursday and Sunday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 2:00 a.m.

Caviar pie
$14.00
Chilean sea bass
$23.00
Tenderloin of beef
$26.00
Chocolate crepes
$9.00

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