I always thought that the “scene” didn’t matter, at least where dinner is concerned. I’d rather eat amazing food in a dismal room than dismal food in an amazing room. But when I stepped into the garden room at Imperial No. 9, I abandoned my philosophy before I even opened the menu. What the restaurant refers to as the garden room looks more like an opulent greenhouse with crystal chandeliers, dangling from a glass ceiling and potted plants scattered around the room. The wire chairs are painted a powder blue and there’s a mirrored communal table in the center of the room. There’s a long oak bar along one side of the dining room and a cottage swing near the entrance, that you can swing on it while you wait for your table. And there’s another, more substantial bar and a second dining room, trimmed with the same, glittery chandeliers and mirrored tables, but the garden room is the one you want to request when you make a reservation. (If you don’t, you’ll spend the evening wishing you were sat in the other room.) Imperial No. 9 is tucked inside the stylish, new Mondrian Hotel in Soho, and on weekends, the hotel lobby is often packed, so it’s most civilized to go on weekdays.
The cocktails at Imperial No. 9 are just as sexy as the garden room. It’s hard to distinguish your cocktail menu these days. Almost everyone’s making their own bitters, infusing their own spirits and using fresh fruit. Yet, John Lermayer ups the ante with inventive touches. like cucumber foam, chai cordials and aloe juice. Instead of cutesy names, the drinks have numbers. I ordered the No. 5, a wonderful twist on a gin martini with a splash of St. Germain, dry vermouth, and aromatic bitters. While I’m not typically a fan of sweet cocktails, I also loved the No. 4, a frothy, balanced mix of of kiwi vodka, lime juice and egg whites, sweetened with agave nectar. We snacked on cauliflower fritters with a crazy creamy ricotta center and garnished with a sunflower seed brittle and balsamic.
The menu is the work of Sam Talbot of Top Chef fame, which tends to stir debate whether he can really cook or if he’s just a pretty face. While the food is good at Surf Lodge in Montauk, it wasn’t unforgettable or overly ambitious. Besides, the scene comes first at Surf Lodge. At Imperial No. 9, the men is dubbed “sustainable American seafood,” but there are plenty of global influences, including the Middle East with harissa-braised chickpeas and raita (excellent) or spicy cucumber kimchee. Though, it’s more of a mild, quick kimchee than the pungent, Korean version. We started with incredibly plump, battered oysters, mingled with crispy nibbles of ham and a salty-sweet chow chow (vegetable relish), which made your garden variety fried oysters seem like a real snooze. There’s raw hiramasa (yellowtail amberjack), dabbed with frozen coconut, chili water, and a rich, black rice vinegar — an original combination that brought out the best in the delicate fish without overpowering it. The slow-cooked octopus was ridiculously tender and moist, bathed in a flavorful jalapeno soffrito, lime and soy — one of the best octopus dishes I’ve had period.
Oddly enough, one of my favorite dishes on the menu is the toasted cous cous, scattered with charred squash, a perfectly runny poached egg, and shards of pecorino. Mix it all together and you have a marvelous, Mediterranean bibimbap. Talbot seems to be settling in quickly and taking more chances: He opened with an entree of scallops with ricotta and pickled melon (a carryover from Surf Lodge), but on my next visit the scallops came with a deeply smoky ragout of clams with lardons, that left much more of an impression on our table. Still, there are some missteps and inconsistencies. The king crab legs a la plancha are huge and cooked a la plancha, which makes the fact that they’re drenched in an overly sweet, sweet-sour butter all the more devastating. And while I loved the grits with shrimp, cheddar and maple jus the first time around, the same dish arrived watery and bland on my second visit.
Skip the grits and order dessert instead. There’s a great, salted caramel ice cream, dusted in sweet popcorn powder, a warm, trio of cookies, and a knockout arrangement of banana bread pudding and honeycomb semifreddo, drizzled with nutella that easily compels a return trip. With Imperial No 9, Sam Talbot has proved he’s not just a pretty face, but rather one to watch.
Imperial No. 9
Address: 9 Crosby St., nr Grand St.
Cuisine: Sustainable Seafood
Vibe: Chic Greenhouse Effect
Occasion: Date, Group Dinner, Fun Night Out
Don’t Miss: Slow-Cooked Octopus, Crispy Oysters, Banana Bread Pudding
Don’t Bother: Drink: No. 4 (Gin Cocktail)