"I am the operator," explains Hun, the mysterious chef at Bay Tree Cuisine. He refused to spell his full name, insisting on the single moniker, like Cher. He would occasionally use "we," but wouldn't name his partners, owners who prefer to remain silent.
Hun did share a bit about himself. A Korean, he came here to study fine art and photography 12 years ago. As a child, he played in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant next door, and later learned about French cuisine from a family friend who had studied in Paris. Here, he worked in several well-regarded restaurants.
In speaking with him and eating his food, you also learn that Hun is obsessive about cooking. He will spend days making a reduction --- like the grape sauce on the Asian pear dessert --- and he voraciously devours magazine, newspaper, and internet articles about food.
All this is on display within the Bay Tree dining experience. For example, a French-style crème de mango sauce adorns the crispy salmon on the lunch menu ($9). But the cream sauce is light, more nouvelle cuisine, and the mango smacks of current restaurant trends. The salmon, cut fresh to order, is slowly fried to create an exquisite crust with only salt and pepper as a coating; a small miracle.
Hun stresses the healthfulness of his menu, noting that there are no potatoes and very little starch to be found, calling it "Atkinson" friendly. One lunch dish with a bit of flour is the vegetable pancake, with large pieces of vegetables fried in a light batter and served with a merlot and fruit juice sauce ($7). It's wonderful, reminiscent of Vietnamese fare.
Lunch items run from $4 to $10. A generous bowl of soup is $5, and with the complimentary crusty bread from Baker Street, could be a meal. I tried excellent sweet pea and tomato soups. Given the high quality, lunch is an outstanding value.
At dinner, the prices go up (starters $5-$13, main courses $16-$26). Expectations also rise, and Bay Tree mostly meets them. Seared foie gras comes with Asian pear and a pomegranate reduction ($13). I prefer foie gras uncooked, but the accompaniments were wonderful, the pear providing texture and the pomegranate sauce richly flavored without being distractingly sweet.
That lack of sweetness is a trademark. Two of Hun's three desserts exhibit it. The mousse is painfully delicate, barely sweetened, with small bits of homemade, unsweetened chocolate folded in, easily the best I've ever had. Braised Asian pears come in the aforementioned grape reduction, two quarts of which Hun produced from 25 pounds of Naples grapes. Desserts are $6, and worth it.
We also tried rib-eye steak with lemon sauce ($10). Hun bristled when I suggested this was Korean, insisting that it's French. OK. The meat is very thin and grilled, the sauce sharp with lemon and pepper. Plain lettuce provides texture, and the dish is a simple thrill.
From the main courses, we had duck breast with whole-grain mustard sauce ($20). The duck was a tad overdone, but not ruined. The sauce, with wine and large, black mustard seeds, was intense, slightly sweet with terrific texture. Sweet lime chicken is popular, apparently, but I'm not a grilled chicken breast fan ($16). The vegetables with both dishes were fine if uninspiring.
The tea selection is a high point. Citron tea, made from aged citron Hun buys directly from Korea, is powerfully lemony, with a fragrant quality and a bit of honey, recalling a cold remedy my mom made (in a good way). I had it on every visit. Hun also grew the mint for his mint tea, and offers Japanese green, Chinese jasmine, and Parisian black teas ($3). Bay Tree serves good Sumatran coffee from Finger Lakes Coffee Roasters.
The service is friendly and relaxed, at a French pace. Hun says he likes parties spending hours over a meal. I like the pacing, but if you're in a hurry, be clear. The place is bright and open, with clean lines and nothing fancy or distracting. Parking is problematic on that block of Park Avenue.
Hun and his partners are less interested in making money than in providing something unique. Bay Tree tries to be a place where people can relax and enjoy healthful food made to the highest standard. It's a noble pursuit, and as Hun readily admits, a work in progress. I found my two lunches delicious and reasonable. Dinner was good, but perhaps not quite good enough at the price. Still, I didn't leave disappointed (the mousse helped), and learned enough respect for Hun's abilities that I expect improvement on future visits.
Bay Tree Cuisine, 260 Park Avenue, 242-8540. Hours: Monday-Friday, noon to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. until the last people leave.
Sushi is now available within the Inner Loop at the House of Sushi, next door to Golden Port (101 East Avenue). Wayne Luong owns both restaurants and allows diners to order off either menu. The sashimi and sushi are not only healthy --- who ever heard of deep-fried sushi or greasy sashimi? --- but also beautiful works of art (546-2480).
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Details and archives available at www.SavorLife.com.