492 Technique trumps taste at new King Street restaurant

Director of Operations Dave Buck greets guests dining at 492 on the corner of King and Mary Street.

At some point between the sturdy planks of toast, spread thickly with a magenta puree of beets and sauerkraut, and the saucerful of sweetened foie gras, crowned with snow-white puffs of popcorn, one of my dining companions leaned forward, brow furrowed. “Who is this place for?” he asked.

It’s a fair question at 492, the restaurant Anita Zucker opened this spring to broadcast the unrestricted culinary stylings of modernist-leaning chef Nathan Whiting.

Whiting, who previously ran the kitchen at Zucker’s now-shuttered fine dining showplace Tristan, has channeled his artistic freedom into a tidy menu of etudes in the keys of greens, grains, seafood and meat. There are about 15 small plates total, so if you have three or four people at your table, you’ll likely order them all.

Because of the arrangement, 492 doesn’t feel like the right setting for a large group (especially if that group includes someone who’s likely to flail anxiously without a green salad or pork chop to cling to.) Nor is the room, a calculated marvel of glass, cypress and tin, especially suitable for romantic evenings. The disco dazzle conceived by architect Alicia Reed is more compatible with the young drinkers who patiently queue up at the front door on late weekend nights. During regular dinner hours, though, 492 seems a tad too elaborate for a quick cocktail and snack.

On my second visit, it hit me: 492 is one of the better backdrops for dinner alone. The tiny dimensions of the plates mean it’s possible to single-handedly enjoy a highly civilized five-course meal, progressing in continental fashion from soup to dessert. The wine list at 492 is reasonably nonconformist, with a sense of adventure that carries over to the by-the-glass selection. And with food designed to provoke more scrutiny than sociability, it makes good sense to consider a one-top, perhaps on the handsome patio, shielded from King Street by a set of steel gates.

There’s just one problem with the solo adventure, and it’s a doozy: 492 is exceptionally expensive. My pleasant dinner for one, accompanied by a too-sweet cocktail and wine, cost $113.07, before tip.

That’s not locally unprecedented. McCrady’s, for example, charges $115 for a seven-course supper and snacks, served without alcohol. But that’s an experience that’s reliably filling, physically and spiritually. As of yet, 492 isn’t offering that kind of heft.

What you’re paying for, I suspect, is a daunting amount of work. Presented with a coarse loaf of grits that resembled one-half of an old-fangled catcher’s mitt, my mind shot to the adage, “work smarter, not harder.” I deeply admire the restaurant’s impulse to make every dish its own, but what diners really want is a slice of decent bread, not a dry, dense invention that crumbles when buttered.

The same issue recurred with the honey ice cream at the center of a baklava sandwich that was very nearly great: The ice cream had the uneven, soupy texture of an at-home trial batch.

Whiting is so confident in the power of hard work that most of the dishes at 492 consist of little more than handicraft. Sometimes, the approach works: A salad of compressed watermelon and watermelon jerky with whipped feta and pickled pine nuts likely involves 73 more steps than the usual summer mix of freshly diced melon and crumbled goat cheese, but the payoff comes in the form of concentrated sugars and crunch. It’s refreshing and smart.

At other times, though, the dishes are surely more interesting for the cooks than the consumers. To create a citrusy quinoa salad, the kitchen devotes days to sprouting the ancient grain, but all of that hard-won delicacy is ultimately eclipsed by the flavorful fat of peanuts, featured in whole and paste form.

Rest assured, at 492, if there’s one way to prepare an ingredient, Whiting will find at least one more. The menu uses superscript numbers to signal how many incarnations to expect: Not just pistachios on the duck, but pistachios to the third power. Come to think of it, the duck is cubed too.

Along those same lines, infusing brown butter with beet juice is visually stunning, but all that really registers on the palate is a standard-issue wedge of cobia, firm and sopped with olive oil. A clam dish suffers from the opposite problem: The shucked local clams are lost to the taste of technique, which here means a thin sheet of lardo and puddle of leek foam.

It’s not cheating to use spices to supplement skill. There are now so many global flavors available to make a dish more enticing, more exciting. But 492 has a tendency to stumble when poking around the deeper reaches of its pantry. Slow-braised beef sloshed with “goulash spices” is as tender as the cooking time suggests, but the brew of tomato sauce and yogurt dollops lacks focus. The fish sauce applied in massive quantity to a salad of barely cooked broccoli, sesame crackers and plump golden raisins doesn’t quite cohere with the supposedly Vietnamese-influenced dish.

My guests at 492 were especially fond of a bowlful of unadorned sweetbreads. While nicely cooked, they sported the smack of Cherry Coke flavor. Still, I liked the little toasts with fishy clouds of whipped salt cod, and bet I could get behind the hank of burnt rye tonnarelli if it wasn’t sabotaged with cream. A slab of roast duck, the most classical preparation on a plate of mustard dots and fig dashes, was lovely, as was a bit of correctly cooked lamb shoulder.

There are clearly lots of big ideas emanating from 492’s open kitchen, and the service staff (judging from the multiple times I was waited on by Cameron, who started calling me by name on my second visit) does a nice job of parsing them. But it would be even nicer if the dishes connected more directly with patrons, instead of creating distance through overwrought technique — leaving guests to wonder what the heck is going on, and why they’re paying so much for it.