Restaurant Review: Tatiana by Kwame Onwuachi Is Talking to You, America

Fine dining rarely has much to say about the state of the country. A celebratory new restaurant at Lincoln Center is different.

Puerto Rican sofrito seasons Tatiana’s roast chicken.Credit…Nico Schinco for The New York Times

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By Pete Wells

Reflecting the mood of the dining public is one thing the restaurant business is good at. Dining rooms anticipate shifts in the way people want to hang out and whom they want to hang with just as certain chefs can sense when the pendulum is about to swing from penitential to self-indulgent, or back.

Commenting on the mood of the country is much more difficult and rare. Movies in the 1970s and ’80s were great at this — think of the way the first two “Godfather” films tapped into a sense of endemic corruption in America, of how “Do the Right Thing” mapped the tripwire tensions that crisscrossed our cities. Albums did it, too. Once in a while television still does.

I’ve never seen a restaurant address what’s going on in the culture the way Tatiana by Kwame Onwuachi, inside David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, does. For his first New York restaurant, Mr. Onwuachi has drawn many of the dishes from episodes in his own, 33-year-old life. Selling dishes with personal history is a staple of restaurants and the cooking-competition show “Top Chef,” on which Mr. Onwuachi was once a contestant. Often when servers relate a personal anecdote of the chef’s that supposedly inspired a dish, an appropriate response is: Who cares? But Mr. Onwuachi is able to connect his autobiography with some of the great themes of Black life in United States.

The past few tumultuous years have sparked a widening recognition that cultural prominence is directly tied to political and economic power, that it’s easier to keep people down when their art and literature and even their cooking are swept to the sidelines. Many museums and publishers, for instance, are now eager to listen to artists who used to have a hard time getting attention. Some people are fighting not to hear; they’re so desperate for nonthreatening bedtime stories that they want to stop schools from talking honestly about racism and slavery. Versions of this push and pull are always playing out in American culture, but they’ve got more volume and intensity lately.

Tatiana by Kwame Onwuachi steps right into this moment. It gives us food from cultures that are part of Mr. Onwuachi’s world but that weren’t usually on display at Lincoln Center, to put it mildly. Almost everybody who eats there talks about the dumplings filled with peekytoe crab and egusi soup, and for good reason. Egusi soup and Mr. Onwuachi’s father both came from Nigeria, and you can read in Mr. Onwuachi’s memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” about his mother’s doomed efforts to please his father by learning to make the soup. She left a pot of it bubbling on the stove the day she’d finally had enough and walked out.

If you haven’t read the book, you’ll still understand that the dumplings point to all the Nigerian food in New York City. And they point beyond that to West Africa, the source of so much Black cooking in this country, carried in the memories of people shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. What seems to be hot sauce under the dumplings is a meatless version of Nigerian red stew. Like another source for the dish, the Shanghainese soup dumplings Mr. Onwuachi remembers eating in Queens (he is claiming the whole city), these egusi dumplings deliver more richness and nuance than their thin wrappers should be able to hold.

The menu plugs into Creole cooking, too, by way of Mr. Onwuachi’s mother, who was raised on the Gulf Coast of Texas. It’s from her that we get Mom Dukes Shrimp, preposterously large, served with their heads on in what seems to be Creole sauce crossed with the Worcestershire-laden sauce for New Orleans barbecue shrimp. This comes with Texas toast (brioche, actually, buttered and griddled). Like a lot of the best cooking at Tatiana, it’s both extravagant and homey.

Once you’ve tapped into West Africa and the Gulf Coast, you’re halfway into the whole Afro-Caribbean canon. Tatiana gets some of its most dynamic and thrilling flavors from the region. There are braised oxtails in a magnificently dark and sticky reduction; flaky crimped half-moon patties filled with an herbaceous goat curry that, like the mango chutney served on the side, sings of Trinidad; and fried red snapper that somehow tastes of both jerk and Caribbean brown stew.

Other Black chefs, including JJ Johnson, Nina Compton and Mashama Bailey, have explored similar ideas in their restaurants. Tatiana sets itself apart with its New York focus and New York style.

When you read articles about Tatiana’s menu it can sound schematic, as if it were a syllabus for a course on the African culinary diaspora. But its spirit is profoundly celebratory. Aside from hoping to bring some undervalued cuisines into the spotlight, Mr. Onwuachi wants you to have fun.

People in the dining room are dressed as if they are going to an event. Some are on their way to or from a show, but for most of them Tatiana is the show. The room shimmers. The long metal-chain curtains in the high windows that look out on Lincoln Center’s plaza and fountain are supposed to be a reference to chain-link fences around playgrounds. In action, they sparkle like necklaces and sway like door beads at a packed house party.

Almost everybody seems to start with a cocktail. Often they keep right on going through the night. The drinks, devised by Don Lee, lean tropical, a fine direction to lean with so much Caribbean food on the menu. I was also glad to meet up again with Mr. Lee’s best-known creation, the bacon-fat-washed old-fashioned, made the way it should be.

Almost everyone who goes to Tatiana remarks on how diverse the crowd looks, which is also true of the staff Mr. Onwuachi has hired for the dining room and the kitchen. Racial diversity is hardly a given in this space, which was a bland institutional amenity before the redesign of David Geffen Hall. To mark the building’s reopening, Lincoln Center also commissioned new artworks by Jacolby Satterwhite and Nina Chanel Abney as well as a multimedia concert work by the composer Etienne Charles. All three pieces confront the back story of the complex, the destruction by the city government of San Juan Hill, the mostly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood that used to stand in the West 60s.

There’s no undoing an act like that. But Lincoln Center can try to undo the city’s message about who belongs there and who doesn’t. Enlisting food in that project is a smart move. It doesn’t just advertise good intentions; it sends an invitation.

San Juan Hill comes to mind when you see the half chicken, with bittersweet dark skin around pink and juicy flesh, served in an amplified sofrito so abundant that the dish almost comes off as a stew. There are green olives in the sofrito, and it probably has more chile heat than most Puerto Rican cooks would use, but the core flavors ring true. It even tastes as if it were seasoned with Goya Sazón. (It isn’t.)

The chicken, like most other dishes, almost asks to be passed around and divided up, which contributes to the party vibe. The menu’s two columns are titled Small Share and Large Share, and the food is portioned and plated to make that easy, which you can’t say about the small-plates-meant-for-sharing that a lot of other chefs send out. You can tell what Mr. Onwuachi learned from the catering business he started when he was 20, because even dishes that must be complicated to make are easy to eat: the honey-glazed okra spears you can pick up with your fingers, the ground lamb stewed with berbere and served over a luxuriantly smooth black-bean hummus, the tiradito-style hamachi in a pool of tart and spicy sauce turned electric orange by peppers and carrot juice.

I couldn’t warm up to a layered panna cotta inspired by rainbow cookies, but I’ve never warmed up to rainbow cookies, either. And there isn’t much joy to be had in the wet and wispy mizuna trying to pass itself off as a Caesar salad. But the menu is so strong overall that the meal builds up a momentum that carries it past dishes that don’t score.

There’s a contradiction in what Mr. Onwuachi is doing at Tatiana — he’s trying to democratize New York’s food culture inside a relatively small and expensive restaurant. He knows it, too. He brings that tension right to the surface when he reworks a chopped cheese, the Bronx bodega standby, with aged rib-eye, brioche, smoked mozzarella and taleggio, then hides it under shaved black truffles. The dish has an ambiguity that we’re more used to finding in art. It’s also unambiguously delicious.

My favorite dessert goes back to the bodega. It’s a knockout that knocks off Little Debbie’s Cosmic Brownie and combines it with a scoop of ice cream that tastes almost exactly like packaged powdered doughnuts, and even leaves the same waxy film in your mouth.

Most New Yorkers know that in many parts of the city, especially late at night, the best restaurant around is the corner bodega. But it’s not every New York chef who knows how to get that idea across while making you smile. Serving an extraordinary meal may be one of the gentlest forms of soft power, but it’s power all the same.

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