Be sure to get your greens with something like the Waldorf salad ($8), which is more fun than anything ever served at the Waldorf. It features endive, arugula, baby spinach greens, caramelized walnuts, slices of Granny Smith apple, and marinated raisins, plus a curry dressing that doesn't take over. Because Ecco's original concept was for drinks and small plates, there is a disproportionate number of starters to entrées. The menu has a little sushi, for example; we didn't. But you could easily enjoy a three-course dinner at Ecco rather than a night of simply grazing and drinking.
The outstanding entrée for my money — well, really, for the Phoenix's expense money — is the roasted half chicken ($17). I'm returning to the old idea of judging a chef by how he prepares a roast chicken, and this was perfectly tender despite being mostly boned and crusty on top. It was also well-seasoned, and had a fine clear gravy. Add a potato cake and garlicky broccoli rabe and I'm a happy fox in any henhouse.
"Agro-Dolce Chianti Slow-Braised Shortribs of Beef" ($18) defies my conventional wisdom about over-described food. It actually has all those flavors on top of the full, beefy flavor of (bone-in) short ribs, a stuffed baked-potato skin, and just-wilted baby spinach.
"Seared Sesame & Pepper Crusted Rare Tuna 'Au Poivre' " ($19.50) is on every bistro menu now in one form or another, but this is a very good version, with fresh English peas and a cylinder of jasmine-rice risotto. It makes for a wonderful platter of contrasts: raw and cooked, lean and fat, protein and starch, spring green and vivid sashimi crimson. Only a grilled salmon fillet ($17.50) was at a lower level — the fish a little overcooked, with a kind of stodgy corn crust that was meant to be herbal. There, mashed potatoes saved the day.
Ecco's wine list is mostly Californian and worldwide — another break from Eastie tradition, though there is house zinfandel ($6/glass) and pinot grigio ($6) to ease the transition. Vintage years are not listed. This was a greater concern before improved technology enabled winemakers to be more consistent with different harvests; some people, however, like to follow a great year, like 2005 or 2006 in Europe. Our Wither Hills sauvignon blanc ($7/glass; $39/bottle) turned out to be a 2006 from New Zealand, a little more crisp and austere than most Kiwi whites, and therefore better with food — if less interesting alone.
Desserts ($6.50) include an entirely competent and effective flourless chocolate-espresso cake, served in two sharp stacked wedges. The most unusual presentation was a white-chocolate mousse, served in a teacup with a "frozen wave" out of a Hokusai print made of whipped cream with Oreo bits. Butterscotch crème brûlée was less brilliant; the caramelized pudding and the burnt sugar on top tended to cancel each other out. A more conventional custard base provides contrast. "Seasonal berries" and whipped cream always raises questions in March. The only seasonal berries around here are the few frozen rose hips the birds didn't get. But somewhere on the planet there are blueberries, blackberries, and a few raspberries that do the job in a wineglass full of whipped cream. Lucky for us, Ecco has found them.
Service on a quiet weeknight was marvelous. The room is large but broken up with a bar, not loud when un-crowded, no background tape, and no TVs. I don't understand bistros with TVs — French bistros don't have them. They have a short list of hot dishes, and tend to a little comfort food. Ecco made me comfortable — at prices that take care of the tunnel tolls, at that.
Robert Nadeau can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.