Diners who can fight the urge to burst into laughter at Earth & Ocean's blatant pretense may be rewarded with delicious, wholesome, and weird-as-hell dishes. "Small plates" (they're not kidding, with bread plates that could easily be mistaken for ashtrays) rule the roost. Nutmeg Seared Lamb Loin with Lentil Stew and Braised Cardoon ($12) is compact and delicious, with unusual cardoon flavor (think celery meets artichoke), and a dazzling lay-out. Steamed Rice, Braised Squash, and Wild Mushrooms ($10) form a handsome little pile, with the consistency of dessert, the flavor of an entrée, and the appearance of a bird's nest.

The Duck Confit, formed into the sporting shape of a hockey puck, is stacked neatly atop a matching little disk of fingerling potato salad. Nine dollars seems a lot to pay for two little cylinders of food, but as with other dishes, the confit's highly dense and compact nature tends to obscure its filling character. It's as though Earth & Ocean is trying to conserve space, perhaps making a clever environmentalist comment with their compressed little packages.

The Sesame Seared Tuna Tartare ($12) is another small food-ring, with a Herculean flavor output over five times greater than its diminutive size. (Someone should talk to NASA about using Earth & Ocean for astronaut food.) Accompanying this space-saving serving was a vase-shaped mini-burrito jammed full of sprouted watercress and wrapped in a microscopically thin tortilla-like shell, hiding fiery pieces of green chili amid the bushy sprouts.

In spite of the occasionally laughable pretense, Earth & Ocean's fare treats the diner to a bizarre and perhaps unintentionally hilarious journey into a futuristic world of tiny and gorgeous foods that expand greatly with prodding, and taste as fresh and natural as the water and dirt from whence they came. The comfortable seats and cozy nooks in the bar decrease in comfort exponentially as upper-class clients stream in later in the evening, filling the room with boorish behavior and inexcusable outfits, making Earth & Ocean an ideal early-dinner choice.

Earth & Ocean, 1112 Fourth Ave (in the W Hotel), 264-6060. Breakfast: Mon-Fri 6:30-10:30 am, Sat-Sun 7:30-10:30 am; lunch daily 11:30 am-2:30 pm; dinner Sun-Thurs 5-10:30 pm, Fri-Sat 5-11:30 pm. Full bar. $$$

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up