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Remi, New York, Santa Monica, Mexico City, Tel Aviv

Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

The crossed oars on blue-and-white awnings hang unobtrusively over doorways. It could be New York, Santa Monica, Mexico City or Tel Aviv. If these widely dispersed urban sites seem unrelated, they are except for one fact. The crossed oars beckon to passersby to enter Remi (it means oars in Italian), a restaurant created by designer Adam Tihany and chef Francesco Antonucci.

At each restaurant, reservations are hard to come by and the tables are filled with an eclectic mix of cosmopolitan trendsetters. The food is Italian by origin and Antonucci transports his native Venice into the kitchen, with modern touches of vivid colors and straightforward flavors. The design is vintage Tihany, one of the world's most sought-after restaurant designers. The Remi design revolves around large paintings or murals of Venetian scenes with blue-and-white-striped accents on the upholstery, highly burnished mahogany-wood chairs and a light wood floor. In concert together, Tihany and Antonucci have created a distinctly Italian yet international blend of simplicity and elegance--both in the ambience and the food.

"The four key words are value, quality, style and consistency," says Tihany. "Mix them up any way you want, but it is the combination of Francesco and me. We've been partners for 10 years now, and it just keeps getting better. He recognizes the value of good design as I recognize the value of his creativity and consistency."

Antonucci is most often found at the stoves in New York. The chefs from the other Remis have all spent time there with him; in fact, the Tel Aviv kitchen brigade and dining-room staff spent six months working closely with him. He travels to the other restaurants to check on their progress. The menus in each locale reflect subtle seasonal differences in the availability of local produce, particularly in the fish dishes. Tel Aviv presents its own challenges because imports of Italian Parmesan are banned, which has forced the restaurant to find creative substitutes while seeking a special import license for the real thing.

Remi's signature dishes are available around the world, however, often with only small variations. One favorite starter is an arugula salad served with sweet-and-sour shallots, paper-thin slices of Parmesan and a walnut olive-oil dressing that resembles a tapénade. The salad is an exotic combo of sharp flavors from the arugula and rich spiciness from the tapénade and walnut oil. Grilled and baked fresh vegetables served with scented garlic oil are outstanding. In New York, a crabmeat and shrimp cake with grilled polenta and baby greens also makes the mouth water.

The excellent homemade pastas are always fresh. Try the ravioli Marco Polo, a delicate pasta stuffed with seafood, usually tuna, and ginger, and served with a light tomato sauce. The spaghetti al pomodoro is laced with oven-dried tomatoes, virgin olive oil and roasted garlic for an interesting twist on a simple Italian standard. If there's a must on the Remi menu, it is the risotto. Antonucci's creativity comes to the fore every time. The risotto is always a daily special, but look for wild mushrooms with truffle oil, asparagus with shrimp or any other combination.

The main courses usually include several dishes that deserve sampling. The tonno al sapore del Mediterraneo (tuna with a taste of the Mediterranean) is served medium rare with tomatoes, black olives and a shallot sauce. Salmon is sautéed and served with a horseradish sauce. A rolled chicken breast is stuffed with Fontina cheese and prosciutto; in New York, it is served with a mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes. Grilled lamb chops are an Antonucci specialty; the best version is one with a pistachio herb crust.

For dessert, check out the crème brûlée, which is creamy and rich with just the right touch of burnt sugar crust. And a warm chocolate soufflé cake with cappuccino parfait is worth its extra calories.

The wine lists are dominated by Italian producers. You can usually find such super Tuscans as Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Tignanello. But look deeper into the list for offerings from Carmignano or any of the fine Italian Pinot Noirs that have been making their way to market.

Remi also specializes in grappas. Tihany takes some of the credit for helping to transform the often rustic, Italian-distilled spirit into an elegant, fancy postprandial apéritif by packaging it in elaborate Italian glass bottles. In New York, he offers 23 grappas, including two from the United States.

If there is one other thing that sets Remi apart, it is the partners' devotion to cigars: both Tihany and Antonucci are cigar smokers. Every Remi has a private dining room, or "chef's table," that is available at all times for cigar lovers (reserve early). In the United States, Remi suffers under the barrage of antismoking regulations, but the restaurant in Los Angeles has an outdoor terrace where smoking is always permitted. And in New York, the restaurant occupies a public atrium at dinner from late spring to fall, where smoking is also allowed. Tihany has added the Rialto Room in New York that was originally designed for private dinners. During the winter, he plans to turn it into an regular dining area where cigar smoking is allowed. The beautiful room, with a 25-foot ceiling and a striking Venetian-glass chandelier, is designed for smoking.

"All my partners are cigar smokers," says Tihany, who has joint ventures for Remi in Santa Monica, Mexico City and Tel Aviv. "By that virtue alone, they attract other smokers." All four Remis hold special cigar dinners, and the George Sand Society, a women's cigar club that also includes a few men, began at the Santa Monica venue. Tel Aviv and Mexico City, according to Tihany, are always packed with cigar smokers. Humidors are kept in each restaurant and in New York, he offers a selection of Davidoffs, including the 2000, Ambassadrice, Aniversario No. 2, and a Grand Cru; Griffin's No. 100 and No. 300; and Avo Petit Belicoso and Pyramid.

Tihany views cigars as part of the Remi culture. "It's always been part of what Remi offers. We've always been like this. It is part of our aura and our image of having the finer things in life."

In fact, Tihany and Antonucci are on a mission to bring the finer things in life to various places around the world. Their next likely target? Moscow. That choice reflects the reasoning he says he used in selecting Mexico City and Tel Aviv before London or Paris. "For the challenge. A Remi in Paris would be interesting, but it's not a challenge. In Mexico City, it's a visionary and timely product. It's much more satisfying to do restaurants where we are helping bring the revolution in food to them."

That's the Remi charm. Sit back. Smoke a cigar after a simply elegant Italian meal and be a soldier in the Tihany-Antonucci mission to spread the finer things in life throughout the world.

-- Gordon Mott

Remi

New York: 145 West 53rd Street
Phone: (212) 581-4242

Santa Monica: 1451 Third Street Promenade
Phone: (310) 393-6545

Mexico City: S.A. Dec. V. Andres Bello No. 10 PB, Col. Polanco
Phone: (525) 282-0062

Tel Aviv: 87 Hayarkon Street
Phone: (972) 3-527-8444

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