“Un-Happy Ending Ever After” is what it says on the ceiling of Gibson, Robin Song’s new fire-centric restaurant inside the Hotel Bijou near Union Square. It’s possible that that cracked-apart fairy-tale cliche is mere coincidence or poetic license on the part of the muralist. But Song’s path here has been a long one. After stints at Central Kitchen, Serpentine, and elsewhere, he worked at Hog & Rocks — and briefly at its spin off, Hi-Lo BBQ — until mid-2015, when he had a pop-up called Junju that appeared at Mister Jiu’s as a waystation until it was to become its own standalone restaurant. That never happened, but a couple years later, Song has his own kitchen at last.
Gibson doesn’t channel fire in some hippie-ish sense of the mythical elements. It has some Japanese influences, but not to the exclusion of other things (except unhappiness). But mostly, it’s intended to rehabilitate the idea of hotel glamor by presenting expertly plated dishes in a beautiful Deco Revival setting, and it does so with the fire on high.
You could come here simply for the drinks, so I’ll start there. There are three titular cocktails — essentially a gin martini with an onion in lieu of an olive, and a drink that may have been invented in 19th-century San Francisco — and the best is the Sea Gibson ($14), a quasi-molecular gastronomy endeavor made with liquid kelp, sake, and the edible flotsam known as sea beans. It’s clever and restrained, oceanic without tasting like you wiped out in the surf. The equally balanced Leather Manhattan ($15), with brown butter and black walnut as if strained through a cheesecloth, is a lot sweeter than a musty library book. Bonus points for simplicity and originality together.
But the even more high-concept Clear Bloody Mary ($13) needs to be pruned back a bit. It’s made with tomato water (the remainder of which goes into the house ketchup) along with sashimi togarashi and shoyu ponzu, plus a spritz of black-pepper tincture you can detect from 10 feet away when the bartender sprays the atomizer. The overall effect is like it’s shouting at you — and all three times I watched it made, the bartender couldn’t get the pickled tomato to stay put in the spoon laid across the top of the glass for effect. Chill out, Mary.
From the satisfying nori chips ($5) to the grilled trout ($18), there’s lots of food to admire. Song is exacting in that he wants everything to be appreciated by multiple senses. I respect that, but every time I ate at Gibson I felt challenged to get the strong individual dishes to cohere into a whole. It feels a little random, and portions err on the small side even as these things go. But admittedly, that’s almost academic.
Just eat. The bread and oven-baked Red Hawk cheese ($14) is a must, particularly with the fig vinegar drizzled over it. A plate of early fall fruits ($6) was superior to the pickled vegetables ($7), which mostly tasted like potpourri. Steer toward the not-especially-charred charred cucumbers with uni bagna cauda ($8), deliciously light and airy — and subtler than with the usual anchovies — like the perfect hors d’oeuvres.
As the menu steps up into roasted vegetables, it really steps up. The tower of brassicas with potato dumplings ($16) was just about perfect, and it looked like a core sample from the world’s most elaborate living wall. A North African plate of roasted carrots ($12) with dates and Moorish spices was deceptively simple, about as fulfilling as vegetarian dishes get without piling on excess for its own sake.
And when you veer away from veggies, things get better still. A miso-heavy bone marrow flan with lobster ($21) is likely poised to be the breakout hit, although it tastes exactly like it sounds, while the clams in hay ($10) are much more creative. Sort of a cream-free chowder, it’s got lardo with plenty of potatoes and herbs to absorb its fatty essence without numbing the palate. (This is where you’ll turn the bowl upside down to spoon out the last of it.) Dry-aged Sonoma duck leg and breast with beetroot and huckleberry ($23) was also a 10 out of 10, like the distillation and concentration of duck-ness. Considerably more spartan and elegant was the grilled trout ($18), two flawlessly cooked halves pairing nicely with fennel and capers, which downplayed the licorice notes while imparting a faux-marine quality vaguely reminiscent of the Sea Gibson.
A server mentioned that Gibson’s concept is what a chef would serve another chef who came over for dinner. There’s a lot of appeal to that formulation, with its implication that all the bullshit and the filters have been tossed away — but I’m not convinced that’s precisely what’s happening here. For one, I don’t think you’d get your own box of cutlery unless you were at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s house. Gibson is more like what two heavily tattooed chefs would have at their wedding reception if all the guests were chefs, too. As bijou is French for “jewel,” the hotel and the restaurant inside it could probably switch their names. But in the main, Song knows when to stay simple and when not to.
This is a pitch-perfect level of glamor. (I even enjoyed myself when the place was swarming with Dreamforcers and their insipid conversations, something that would ordinarily make me grind my teeth for 90 minutes straight.) For all the misty-eyed reminiscences for an era nobody really remembers firsthand, the middle of the 20th century was a time of incessant cigarette smoke, when the world was about as ADA-accessible as ancient Athens. I’m ecstatic that people are drinking Gibsons again, and this is a splendid place to throw them back with duck and trout. It’s impossible to prove, of course, but I feel like restaurants like this might out-perform their antecedents.
And beneath the cryptic message about the “un-happy” ending on Gibson’s ceiling mural is another that’s smaller and darker and harder to read. “Never regret anything because at one time it was exactly what you wanted to hear.” It’s a toast to hedonism itself.
Gibson, inside the Hotel Bijou, 111 Mason St., 415-771-1200 or hotelbijou.com/gibson