NEW YORK — A whole roast lamb arrives on a huge tray surrounded by candles. When it is cut, a flock of doves comes flying out through the flames.
Votive candles are massed everywhere, cotton canopies cover the tables, the oxidized metal furniture has the faint whiff of antique decay. One of the dining rooms even has an oversized sunken bath in the middle of the floor.
Call it Manhattan Satyricon. It is New York's hottest new restaurant, and it is full of fashionable folk, anxious for history on a plate.
Cave Canem ("Beware of the Dog") may sound like Disneyland, but it is more than merely a theme restaurant. Chef Tom Gamache has studied the literature of Roman cooking; he even consulted food historian Rudolf Grewe about the details of the menu. Gamache makes a point of excluding ingredients that the Romans didn't use; you will find no tomatoes, potatoes or cream served here. When he cooks polenta , he makes it with semolina, since corn did not arrive in Europe until after the discovery of America.
Still, this is not quite culinary time travel. "Many authentic dishes," says Gamache, "would not be palatable to Americans. We had some recipes translated and tried them; people sent them back. I want to catch the style of the Romans. My idea of the food is that Rome was a wealthy decadent society, and the average Roman cook in a wealthy household would do the kind of things we do. My sense of Apicius (the reputed author of the 4th-Century cookbook De Re Coquinaria ) is that they got creative."
They certainly did. The Romans did many strange things in the kitchen, like putting honey, cumin and a fish sauce similar to Thai nam pla into a dessert of boiled pears baked with eggs. And to this day there is much that remains mysterious about the ancient cuisine. We know, for instance, that the most common flavor in Roman cooking was probably lovage, but we don't know whether the Romans used the leaves (as we do), the roots (as Gamache does) or the seeds.
So it is probably pointless to argue that while the surviving recipes for salacattabia describe a sort of cold antipasto of cucumbers, pine nuts, cheese and cooked meats served in a mold of vinegar-moistened bread, Cave Canem's salacattabia is quite different. Here it is a pate of ground veal, calves' brains and three kinds of liver (duck, rabbit, grouse) with hazelnuts and fresh ham boiled with figs served on the side. Or to argue that Cave Canem's "chicken Vardanus" looks rather like a totally different Roman dish, pullus numidius , with the sauce ingredients stuffed under the skin instead of being poured over the chicken. Nor to question where the meringue on the Alexandrine squash comes from, nor. . . .
But even to the non-historian, Cave Canem's food is an adventure. As soon as you are seated, the waiter brings on an assortment of little dishes: warm, oregano-laced olives, a "pate" of sharply seasoned, mashed fresh tuna and a slab of warm focaccia seasoned with rosemary and Romano cheese. A peppered butter is offered too, although the waiter acknowledged that the Romans did not eat butter.
For our gustatio (appetizers), we tried Roman sausages with Imperial sauces. Both links--one of lobster and mussels and the other of capon and veal--were flavorful and so lean they almost crumbled. The meat sausage came in a sauce loaded with herbs and pepper, a reminder that the Romans liked to flaunt their wealth by using a great deal of expensive pepper.
"Flat rabbit" is one of Gamache's inventions. Little pieces of pounded loin mingle with mushrooms fried in truffle-flavored oil. Sweet roasted garlic cloves perfume the lovely wine sauce. They taste good--but it is unlikely that a wealthy Roman would have served such a dish, as they considered the prolific bulb to be a coarse food.
Rather than sticking strictly to history, the kitchen creates new dishes for the constantly evolving menu. Quail with truffles arrived with the birds' sharp claws still intact, arched dramatically toward the ceiling. "It's possible claws were used as tooth picks," our waiter offered, as he set the heavy platter down. Mounds of perfectly cooked scallops mixed with green grape halves were heaped around the birds, and a voluptuous bunch of red grapes draped languidly over the platter's edge. The sauce was a pepper-and-thyme-infused reduction; it was delicious--but it overpowered the truffles.
"And now dessert," said the waiter. "We have 'Scissa's favorite': Half a quail and a poached fig-and-nut sausage in sweet gooseberry sauce along with goat cheese, fruits, hazelnuts and honey and wine to dip it into." All this seemed rather similar to the meal we'd just consumed. "The cheesecake," he continued (cheesecake seems to be required on all New York menus), "isn't sweet. It's made with goat curd and a special variety of Parmesan, eggs and reduced fruit wine."
We opted for Roman butternut squash custard. It was a cousin of Grandma's pumpkin pie filling--a Roman Grandma, of course.
Cave Canem, 24 1st Ave., New York, (212) 529-9665. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday. Full bar. American Express, Diner's Club, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$45.