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Restaurant Ninjas!

Yelping Warriors, and Rocks in the Broth

By FRANK BRUNI
CONFUSING the point of a restaurant with the mission of a "Saturday Night Live" skit, Ninja New York deposits you in a kooky, dreary subterranean labyrinth that seems better suited to coal mining than to supping. You are greeted there by servers in black costumes who ceaselessly bow, regularly yelp and ever so occasionally tumble, and you are asked to choose between two routes to your table.

The first is described by a ninja escort as simple and direct. The second is "dark, dangerous and narrow," involving a long tunnel and a drawbridge that descends only when your escort intones a special command, which he later implores you to keep secret.

I recommend a third path: right back out the door. Granted, you will be denied the sating of any curiosity about what a $3.5 million design budget permits in the way of faux stone walls, make-believe gorges and mock torches. You will forgo an iota of modest amusement.

But you will be spared an infinitely larger measure of tedium, a visually histrionic smorgasbord of undistinguished food and a discordant bill that can easily exceed $100 a person with tax, tip and drinks.

Ninja acts like a Disney ride - Space Mountain under a hailstorm of run-of-the-mill or unappealing sushi - but charges like Le Bernardin. It has a stringy crab dish served on a grapefruit that belches smoke, a ridiculous dessert in the shape of a frog and a whole lot of nerve.

An American offshoot of a restaurant in Tokyo, Ninja intends to evoke a Japanese mountain village inhabited by ninjas, a special breed of stealthy warriors. In this case they come armed not only with swords and sorcery but also with recipes, which may be their most dangerous weapons of all. And they roam, romp and perform dopey magic tricks, including sleight of hand with rubber bands, over 6,000 square feet of darkened crannies and well-separated, quiet nooks.

Each party of diners receives its own nook, which quickly takes on the aspect of a jail cell as the ninjas, delivering and removing dishes, laboriously slide the latticed doors open and closed, closed and open, ad infinitum.

On my first visit, when I tried a $150 tasting menu with a dearth of culinary highlights but a surfeit of ninja pageantry, they reliably garnished this gesture with loud expectorations of a putative courtesy that sounded more like a rebuke, the phonetic rendering of which would be something along the lines of "Go-mayn!"

"Go-mayn!" coughed a ninja, and onto the table dropped an appetizer of octopus drowned in vinegar. Not soon enough, it was spirited away ("Go-mayn!"), to be replaced and rivaled later on by a wedge of dry black cod in edible paper ("Go-mayn!").

I grew so weary of these syllables that I asked if they could be varied, if something along the lines of a "Surrender, Dorothy!" could be thrown into the mix. I was dead serious.

The lineup of dishes isn't. Presented on a scroll, it mingles straightforward Japanese fare (tempura, sashimi, soba, yakitori) with flights of fancy that are grounded, but only somewhat, in Japanese and French traditions.

In the name of "new style sushi" Ninja employs rice cakes as beds - or sometimes graves - for a rectangle of truffle-flecked omelet (it tasted like soggy French toast), a sliver of sautéed foie gras (pleasant, but how could it not be?) and a finger of seaweed-crowned mackerel (fishy in the extreme).

It trots out a golden tower roll, which inexplicably embeds uni in spongecake, and a spring snow roll, which engulfs eel in an obliterating puck of sweetened cream cheese.

In the service of table-side derring-do the restaurant spotlights what it calls a meteorite pot, a milky brew with Thai seasonings and slices of pork loin. A ninja cooks it in close, sizzling proximity to diners by heaving a large, hot rock into the broth. It's a soup and a sauna, not to mention a pointless effort for the thin, dull outcome.

And in the interest of decadence Ninja concocts appetizers like a "crème brûlée" that combines egg custard with Parmesan, potato, foie gras and veal for a quichelike effect. It was actually good, a judgment that applied to only about a third of the food, much too small a fraction for a restaurant this expensive.

The shoddy service also contradicted the cost. If a restaurant wants to promote six multicourse meals that range from $80 to $200, it should make sure that the menu on which these options appear doesn't have a big red food stain, as a companion's menu did.

If a restaurant wants to charge between $12 and $18 a glass for white wine and $15 for weak specialty drinks, it should respond to an expressed interest in sake with a presentation of its sake list, not with the words "I'll bring half a liter," which is what a ninja said. It should not run out of sparkling water, as it did one night.

It should also advise its ninjas that it's not nice to brag about having entertained a Hollywood celebrity who, by the account of the ninja in question, was the apparent beneficiary of recent breast augmentation. I was happy for the disclosure and appalled at the indiscretion, as I was at so much else.

A "fatty tuna steak," available ?la carte for $45, was no larger than a cutlet, and while I expected o-toro, I detected no toro. Once the bright red bits of shell that decorated a $40 lobster entrée were removed, all that remained was about eight bites of flesh, neither tender nor sweet.

That frog dessert was just $10, but it was little more than a cloying blob of cunningly molded cream cheese. A ho-hum amalgam of chocolate cake, green tea cake and vanilla and green tea ice creams (also $10) was another triumph of shape over substance, resembling a bonsai.

For a toddler with a trust fund and a yen for udon and maki, Ninja might be a valid alternative to the Jekyll and Hyde restaurant.

For just about anybody else it's nonsensical, and its climactic illusion may well be a disappearing act.

Ninja New York

Poor

25 Hudson Street (Duane Street), TriBeCa; (212) 274-8500.

ATMOSPHERE An underground, otherworldly, cavelike maze that spreads over 6,000 square feet, including private dining nooks, and is meant to evoke a Japanese mountain village.

SOUND LEVEL Quiet.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Maki roll of shiitake and shrimp in purple rice; cucumber, shiso and sesame roll; squid ink crackers with foie gras terrine; deep-fried burdock root; egg custard with foie gras and veal.

WINE LIST A limited international selection of relatively high-priced wines, complemented by sake and specialty drinks.

PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $10 to $20; entrees, $20 to $45; ?la carte sushi, $6 to $12; maki rolls, $10 to $15; desserts, $10 to $12; tasting menus, $80 to $200 at dinner, $40 to $60 at lunch.

HOURS Lunch 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Dinner nightly, 5:45 to 10.

RESERVATIONS For prime times, call two weeks in advance.

CREDIT CARDS All major cards.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Entrance at street level; elevator to dining room and accessible restroom.

WHAT THE STARS MEAN:
(None) Poor to satisfactory
* Good
** Very good
*** Excellent
**** Extraordinary
Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

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