It’s not Halloween, but so what? I love to dress up. Tonight, I’m wearing my black satin hot pants (funny, when I tucked them away in the closet twenty years ago, I must have known I’d need them again one day). My black velvet basketball shoes lace halfway up, and I’d be freezing in my old merry widow (bustier to you, darling) if it weren’t for my fur-lined baseball jacket. Alvin accidentally slashed his kneecap when he was shredding his jeans just now, but he has managed an artful insouciance. Still, I feel we’ll never fool anyone. meeting mr right
We’ve hired a car and are off in search of downtown. Specifically, downtown “eats.” Eat-heat. Anthropology on toast. A couple of immutable uptowners among the aborigines. Isn’t it amazing? Suddenly, New York’s hottest and most imperative restaurants — Alison on Dominick, the Gotham Bar and Grill, Montrachet, Bouley, Chanterelle, Le Madri, 150 Wooster — are huddled practically below the equator. When was the last time I thought about Marylou’s on West 9th Street? Not since it opened, nine years ago. Now the seafood is mesquite-grilled and the joint’s still jumping, through the middle-aged cowboy on the next barstool assures me things don’t percolate till late. Texarkana was a gourmand-patriot’s celebration of Americana, a Vogue-ish hostess taming the throngs with proper downtown vagueness. Tonight, it is shuttered, a marshal’s notice taped to the door.
We roam West 13th street looking for Le Chapiteau, just one summer ago a magnetic babble of foreign accents and unisex ponytails. Gone. Now Café Loup has staked that turf. Creeping down Broadway, with its neon sleaze, Bayamo, Caramba, Blue Willow are lively NYU study halls. If the margaritas are big enough to swim in, everybody’s happy.
Oh, lordy me — it’s Paul Prodhomme. No, silly, not on the sidewalk on the video monitor. Outside K-Paul’s New York (the late Betty Brown’s Broadway Dining, then the Big Kahuna), the rules, once sterner than those at Alcatraz, have been relaxed a bit to lure in unbullyable New Yorkers. We are in NoHo or LoBro, where Bar Lui, the now-defunct 300-seat sizzler (’85 vintage), snaked clear through to Mercer, and the slit-eyed bruiser at the pink velvet rope played domination games on the sidewalk. We all wore outsize camp shirts and hubcap earrings. Overnight, it’s become Gadzilla, Gadzilla – oops, Gonzalez y Gonzalez, another Michael Weinstein (America, Ernie’s, the Saloon) figment (does he eat sour pickles too late at night?), with live music, stuffed iguanas, and papier-mache skeletons. Oh, no. A velvet rope. Then — surprise! — the doorkeeper smiles and welcomes us in. It must be 1989. We’ve slipped over the border to SoHo. At 150 Wooster, Harleys nuzzle fender to fender with Lincoln Town Cars. No need to fret — Bianca’s still here. A small man in a porkpie hat glares at Alvin, furious to see they’re wearing the same green Lucite bangle.
Odeon is calm. It’s early. I can’t get a fix on the tribe jammed between tables waiting for seats at Raoul’s. If only Margaret Mead were here. It’s almost midnight, but El Teddy’s is frisky under the Statue of Liberty crown left by El Internacional, 1984’s beloved outpost of funk and tapas before it tilted into Chapter 11.
We’re lost, as usual, looking for Canal Bar. How very Brian of Brian McNallly to latch onto a sleazy saloon on some indifferent corner and not bother gussying it up till the blackbirds of the night were already five deep at the bar. “Is it SoHo or the Village?” I ask. “I dunno,” says Brian. “Perhaps that’s the problem.”
There are uptown restaurants downtown because they couldn’t afford the uptown rents. That gives them downtown latitude. Like Montrachet, with its waiters in black blacker than the uptowners campouflaged in downtown camouflage by Parachute. Like Bouley, an uptown, uptight island in the butter-and-egg district with Wall Streeters and other suits, steam coming out of their ears from waiting so long to claim their 8:15 tables.
Then there’s the downtown attitude. “It’s all about being undefineable,” says architect David Rockwell, whose heart bears the fissures of too many million-dollar-restaurant designs vanished overnight in he bungling hands of eager amateurs. (What fun. Let’s open a restaurant. We’ll call it Palazzo.) “Downtown is vague. They don’t want to be typed. Don’t want to be caught being enthusiastic. It’s important to look like they’re trying hard not to try.”
There’s no room for attitude at Canal Bar tonight. It’s not crowded enough. Alvin is on a diet, but he cant help finishing the Parmesan-chicken sandwich. We are debating whether the woman in the next booth is a man when Brian arrives to check the meal count. “We’re still doing 200 a night,” he says. “But it’s only a question of time.”
Alvin tells him of our odyssey. “Go to Lucky Strike?,” he says. “It’s packed.” But it’s after 1 a.m. “Definitely packed,” he says of the brand-new bistro opened by brother Keith. (They haven’t spoken since 1984. No one is sure why.) Since we’ve dismissed our car, he drives us to Grand just east of West Broadway, where La Gamelle once drew happy loiterers. “Come in with us,” Alvin urges. “It’s time to make up,” Brian ducks his head. He’d rather not. We leave him in the sleek, dark Mercedes, inching forward, backing up, chatting with friends as they exit, Brian McNally, king of the night, skulking outside brother Keith’s newest venture. Anthropology is not enough here.
How did it begin? What made downtown a destination for grand dining? What lured the stuffed shirts and the snobs across the Maginot Line? Who were the pioneers?
In the beginning, there was Joe Baum, and he created the world. Windows on the World. And New York saw that it was good, even thrilling…that never-before-seen osprey view of the harbor and all of lower Manhattan from the 107th floor. And later, Oh-Ho-So and the SoHo Charcuterie made lunch a sweet parenthesis in gallery-hopping, and then in winter 1979, jazz and dinner at Greene Street and the daring young Waltucks at Chanterelle lit up the desolation at nighttime SoHo.
There are still a few precious fossils who never shop or graze below 57th Street (prowling the netherworld after dark in a stretched-out limousine in search of this week’s hotbed doesn’t really count.). Fourteenth Street used to be the Berlin wall for many. It still is for the slaves of downtown (especially rapid converts from uptown yuppiedom to the faux bohemia of TriBeCa, who have to be coaxed out of their sweats and dragged uptown for dinner).
“Have you ever sat in an uptown restaurant and said, ’Wow, ain’t I lucky to be uptown’?” asks restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. “Uptown is safe. It’s boring. It’s near the house. When you’re at a table in the Rainbow Room, you know you’re in New York. When you’re crushed at the Canal Bar, you know you’re downtown.”
Downtown is fun, funny, unzippered. Of course, we went downtown to eat in the Olden Days. We were brave Marco Polos nibbling duck’s feet and fried milk in Chinatown. We played macho oneupmanship over the hot sauce at Vincent’s Clam Bar in Little Italy. We sat in the tub to shrink-fit our couturier blue jeans and rode the subway to the village for jazz and mom-and-pop cooking, often some exotic ethnic stew.
But a couple of immigrants from London’s East End changed all that. About the same time that J.S. Van Dam was being pounded into shape and the Capsouto brothers were hanging the lace curtains in their vast, bare brasserie Capsouto Frères on Washington at Watts, Keith and Brian McNally (with Lynn Wagenknecht, later Keith’s wife) were sprucing up an old cafeteria on West Broadway near Thomas Street. Though not exactly flush, these veterans of One Fifth, Café Un Deux Trois, and Mr. Chow were making do – keeping the tacky chairs, the homely banquettes, the Tak-A-Check machine, bringing in a properly silly Art Deco bar and a clock framed in rose and green neon.
They didn’t mean to do serious food. But they’d hired Patrick Clark, who insisted on strutting the stuff he’d picked up from his mentor, Michel Guérard: nouvelle cuisine heroics in a simmering hangout for the eclectic chic. That was October 1980. Odeon was primal downtown eat and be seen, see and be eaten, and it set the tone for future McNally ventures, solo (Café Luxembourg, Nell’s, and the new Lucky Strike in SoHo for Keith and Lynn; Indochine, Jerry’s, Canal Bar, and 150 Wooster for Brian). Cheap rent. Minimal, do-it-yourself décor. Laid-back nonchalance.
Keith McNally thinks it began at One Fifth, in the Village, “a spacious, exceptional space that drew a mix of people, uptown, downtown, not just one class. But actually, La Coupole in Paris was the true inspiration. No frills, no dress code… no worshipful hush (as demanded by the midtown Le’s and La-de-da’s). Indeed, cruel cacophony fueled a new aesthetic. “Noise creates energy!” the impudent cried. “It’s theater,” Quickly, it all became clear. If we weren’t hoarse from screaming above the din, how could we know we were in the Right Place?
La Coupole was exactly what Lopata had in mind when he designed the plush, easy, late-night brasserie Joanna in a vast old box factory at 18 East 18th Street. Perhaps a certain species of New Yorker suffers chronic neophilia. Or maybe it just grew more virulent in the seventies and early eighties, when all that seemed to matter was drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll – and money.
Joanna was a zoo of preening peacocks and little foxes, fat cats, selected Gray Panthers, and the usual lemmings. Some in blue jeans and some in black tie. And it created a pattern. First the glitter, then the gray flannel, finally the inevitable polyester. Still, Joanna fans were stunned when it ended. “Mismanagement,” Joanna owner Michael Bartlett said. “With the sort of grosses we had, anyone who knew what they were doing should have made money.” Drowning in a sea of red ink,” he “just gave up.”
By that time, the Photo district (also dubbed the Flatiron district) boasted more grands chateaux of dining than the Loire Valle. There was Sam Lopata’s Art Deco Japanese-continental brasserie, Café Seyoken, the polymorphic brainchild of Tony Tokunaga (too soon a kamikaze mission). How hot it was. And the food wasn’t that bad. The names (forgive me if I don’t drop them, but this is not Celebrity Service), the fashion pilgrims, and the harlots all in black. Fifth Avenue Grill beat boutiquefication in the Teens and faded, making way for Sofi. La Colonna on West 19th took off like a rocket and was offered not long after for $2.1 million.
America, with its misty mirage-like vision of the heartland painted on the walls and 350 school chairs in a 10,000-square-foot carpet warehouse, blocked traffic at 9 East 18th. It survives, a lively tourist attraction, long after Caffe Roma came, sizzled, sputtered, and disappeared without a whimper. Long after Il Palazzo shimmered, shuddered, and shuttered. Long after the music-makers Ashford and Simpson failed to strike gold with $1 million invested in 10,000 square feet at 20/20. Long after Woods, Provecho’s, Le Palmier, and the F/Stop Café surrendered.
Even as headlines sang the dirge Flatiron Turns Sour, a gaggle of investors were pouring $4 million into the titanic Café Society, on Broadway at 21st Street. After hours, trendettes made it a must for seven minutes, and Shelly Abramowitz (a severed co-founder of Canastel’s) has kept the place afloat with live music, private parties, and 25 pool tables.
All those publishers and ad agencies moving to Flatiron for the discount rents didn’t move fast enough and probably couldn’t have saved the rotating torrid zones, lost in bonfires of inanities. Life on the Avenue was less harrowing. Positano, partnered by film-and-commercial-makers Bob Giraldi and Phil Suarez, humbled and catered and struggled to deaden the din, softening the cool edges of its tiered space on Park Avenue South and 20th.
Canastel’s, the nocturnal imperative of its season, survived the churning tides of “in” by holding fast to a loyal following, and Café Iguana, which has never been chic, just unceasingly thronged, cheek to cheek, night after night – Mama Iguana (as partner Joyce Steins like to call herself) embracing her budding brood. But Steins takes nothing for granted, wooing neighborhood families in the early-bird hours with a kiddie menu, a moppets’ brunch on Sunday, T-shirts, and old folks’ discounts.
Bad food, bag management, bad vibes, bad timing, nasty wrinkles in the new tax law on expense account feeding, the Wall Street fallout. Pick a diagnosis. Seventy-five percent of the city’s restaurants change hands or fold before they’re five years old, according to the New York State restaurant association. Thirty-eight dreams faded into chapter 11 so far this year, according to Lawrence Sarf of Purveyors Market Service, a firm that keeps track of solvency for restaurant suppliers.
But Da Umberto does well on a dismal Chelsea alley. The Union Square Café is always booked. Zeckendorf Towers should spur a Union Square revival and a new influx of eaters. Le Madri is a glow of cachet on lower Seventh Avenue. And everything’s coming up Matsuda, Armani, and money on lower Fifth. This is not downtown. It’s uptown creep.
Some think SoHo is getting gray. Gone are many of the artists who lived like gypsies in illegal lofts (making SoHo safe for millionaire hippies), but Raoul’s stil oozes downtown from every pore. The Broome Street Bar, Fanelli’s, and Berry’s – which antedated chic – continue to thrive. Jerry’s, a newcomer, looks as if it’s been on Prince Street forever. The SoHo Kitchen and Bar feels genuine. People who live across the street from 150 Wooster haven’t got a prayer of getting in. Greene Street, which celebrated its tenth birthday on December 3, draws romantics, jazz lovers, and musicians beneath the loft-high mural of a magic city.
Remember Wings – an early pit stop on the peacock parade? “Definitely an Upper West Side restaurant,” consultant Clark Wolf suggests. What did we know. Alvin and me, in our early West End Avenue innocence? We raced down to Wooster Street to mingle with fashion’s Tinkertoys, and I, in my fringed pink suede, faded right into the incandescent pink walls. I was smarter by the time it reopened as La Vie En Rose three years later. I wore black leather from my cap to my domination boots. Unfortunately, Grace Jones was wearing the exact same disguise. I was so invisible, not even I was sure that I existed.
Of course, downtown always included Little Italy, a world all of its own. The Hong Kong-ization of Chinatown has brought vertical shopping malls and vast sweeping supermarkets of feeding like the Golden Unicorn and Triple Eight Palace, with hostesses in clinging cheongsam moving traffic over walkie-talkies. The South Street Seaport seems beyond downtown. It sits somewhere in the East River like an appendix, a not-quite-essential anatomical outcropping, amusing tourists and cabaret fans (at Caroline’s Comedy Club) but also attracting the milling, mating, and networking whelps of Wall Street. Roeblings (so unobtrusive it’s not even listed in Zagat) does 500 to 700 meals a day in the Fulton Market Building (where Robert Morgenthau, Ronald Lauder, and John F. Kennedy Jr. have been seen tucking it away).
Battery Park City, on its 91 acres of optimism, sits like an offshore island, too, with four of its thirteen restaurant tenants still to open. Moran’s Bar and Grill (with its menu on a rolled-up ledger sheet), and Pipeline (with its industrial oil-rig wit) get lunch-hour action, looking out at the harbor with the Statue of Liberty standing guard. Donald Sacks does his signature sandwiches, and entrées a cut above freezer fare. Penny-pinchers brown-bag it in the Winter Garden. Au Bon Pain gets a daily rush. But many World Financial Center executives refuel in company factories and dining rooms and – like Wall Street Journal editor Norman Pearlstine — occasionally find it easier to hop a cab for a business lunch at Il Mulino or the Gotham than to cross the moat of West Street for humbler fare. Perhaps the just-opened Hudson River Club will temper the wanderlust.
Delia’s (dancing and shepherd’s pie on East 3rd) and Flamingo East (a laid-back hangout and Second Avenue) draw adventurers obsessed with checking out any rumored action. Hawaii 5-0 once thrived on that circuit; now it’s gone. Indochine has lingering cachet, the Papp Theater across the street, and NYU-student-friendly prices to prolong its existence. Benny’s Burritos, Miracle Grill, Caribe, Sugar Reef, and Bernard’s (with his organic French cooking on Avenue C) lure budgeters, as do the lookalike feeding stations of Little India on East 6th (Mitali is my favorite). And Lower East Side institutions like Sammy’s Rumanian, Ratner’s, and Katz’s Deli are eternal love objects. But Alphabet City has yet to see the extravagant restaurant dramas of other downtown outbacks.
“Downtown,” to serious gourmands, has come to mean “worth the outrageous detour” for Montrachet, Chanterelle, and Bouley in the truculence, of Tribeca. Scattered haunts of pre-gentrified Tribeca survive: real diners and bars like Puffy’s Tavern at 81 Hudson and Walker’s on North Moore, not far from the corner of Franklin and Greenwich, where Montrachet’s Drew Nieporent will be running Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill.
Downtown’s Bermuda Triangle has been particularly cruel to culinary ambitions, but I’ll skip the obituaries for fear of seeming too ghoulish. West Street, with its breathtaking view of New Jersey sunsets, has been tricky, too. But the American-roadside look of Gulf Coast is the signature of Stan Tankersley, who scouts his own real estate and flits from one funky feedery to another.
Rents are inching down in TriBeCa and in SoHo. The chill in Chelsea is forcing landlords to retreat. Wall Street is hurting, too, according to Lillian Bicks, a 40-year veteran of restaurant and club leasing. “I remember when SoHo was the Bowery. And we called the East Village the Delancey Area. Too many people thought restaurants could only radiate money. Now it’s survival of the fittest,” she says.
Could we see a downtown backlash? Downtown is just an adolescent state of mind, according to Elaine Kaufman, the empress of uptown. “As soon as they can afford it, they all come uptown.” Sure enough, the relentless Brian McNally is looking at a giant space in Times Square. A duo from Indochine have opened Punsch on West 60th. Lox Around the Clock, on lower Eighth, will bring blintzes to Elaine’s own crossroads on upper Second Avenue. Harlem could be getting hot. Or Roosevelt Island.
I can’t even think about that now. I’ve got to zip Alvin into his rubber tank top and teach him how to walk in his new high-heeled cowboy boots. Damn. He just caught the spurs in my fringe. We’re off to make the scene at that fabulous new Tuscan-American diner-disco that Sirio’s sons have launched on the landfill of Ellis Island. Count on me to tell you everything.
To please an uptown mouth (fussy) with an Upper West Side brain (curious) and a downtown spirit (adventurous if not downright trashy), here are some favorites of our Insatiable Critic.
The Flatiron District, Union Square, and Chelsea
There is a knowing, caring glow about the Union Square Café (21 East 16th Street), a reflection of host Danny Meyer’s constant presence – greeting his publishing and ad-world regulars, seating artists under their paintings in his vibrant collection. And Michael Romano, a downtown émigré from La Caravelle, has simplified the food so it’s better than ever.
I could make an outrageous indulgence out of the side dishes alone – hot garlic potato chips, creamy polenta with mascarpone garlic-rubbed bruschetta, white beans simmered with herbs and pecorino, and mashed turnips with shallot crisps. To share, of course. The tuna burger with pickled ginger would be brilliant if it were chopped instead of ground, and the cole slaw tastes twice-vinegared. But roasted mushrooms and potatoes with garlic and Parmesan; sheep’s-milk-cheese ravioli with black pepper and sage butter; risotto with snails, pancetta, and leeks in red wine; splendid steak with mashed potatoes; and Wednesday’s suckling pig are triumphs.
A daunting selection from the antipasto buffet and pasta with tomato, white beans, and basil, or the thick, glazed porridge of red and white cabbage soup with cheese and bread are the perfect lunch at Da Umberto (107 West 17th Street). Seated under the skylight in Periyali’s rustic Greek cottage (35 West 20th Street), we share giant white beans stridently garlicked, tender grilled octopus, and a whole grilled porgy (next time, I’ll ask for it less cooked). Gospel at brunch and spicy onion crisps with down-home fried chicken will wake you up Sunday at Lola (30 West 22nd Street). Nights can be Brazilian or jazzy.
Good pizzas, pastas, and wonderful (if Dagwood were Italian) sandwiches on thick semolina toast make Giorgio Café (245 Park Avenue South, at 20th Street), a stylish purple-neoned luncheonette, worth locking knees with a companion at the postage-stamp tables. Sofi (102 Fifth Avenue, near 15th Street) has wit and style in a soaring space, the CIA of Spy at lunch, good food and great desserts.
The usual well-heeled uptown renegades hog the tables in Pino Luongo’s Le Madri, instant gentrification and pizzas at 168 West 18th Street. The kitchen is uneven, but the pastas are good and the buzz is electric.
For me, the Gotham Bar and Grill (12 East 12th Street) strikes a gourmandlich balance – glorious food in a gracefully informal eddy. I love the bustle, the eclectic drift of good-looking people, the sweep and whimsy of this postmodern grand café with its smartly stenciled floors and the light-and-sound-softening parachutes billowing overhead. I get a giggle from Chef Alfred Portale’s skyscrapers – the towering seafood salad, his tiered grouper mimicking the Guggenheim, his Wilt-the-Stilt sundaes. He’s grown to become one of New York’s most brilliant chefs, so let him play.
Try exquisite warm skate salad, quail with roasted shiitake in sherry vinaigrette, lacquered scallops with black-pepper-and-parsley-pesto-coated pappardelle, mustard-slicked rack of lamb with a garlic flan, roast squab with saffron, coriander-and-vegetable ravioli, one of Manhattan’s great steaks, with deep-fried shallots. And for dessert: the best profiteroles anywhere, warm chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream, and banana coupe lava’d with sublime bitter chocolate.
Chef Thomas Keller is stubborn. Perhaps if he stewed raffish bistro grub like that of partner Serge Raoul’s SoHo hangout, Raoul’s, Rakel (231 Varick Street) would make a mint. But Keller can’t abandon his dream. He keeps creating sophisticated, often stunning fare (only occasionally overreaching) for a trickle of loyal devotees who gladly make the long detour to this wilderness.
Is the room too cold? Too fancy for downtown? Not for those who celebrate his crisp-edged lamb breast with cranberry beans, the wild-mushroom “cappuccino” consommé, the rouget set off by a soaring saffron sauce, or a lotte steak with spicy fried onions, green lentils, and a hint of curry. Prices, greedy for a downtown no-man’s-land (entrées $24 to $35, tasting menu $85), are softened a bit by good buys on the wine list, a new $37.50 prix fixe dinner, and a brand-new bar menu with wild-mushroom risotto, grilled tuna burger, and melting shoulder of veal with whipped potatoes.
A dippy, delightful, eccentric setting by Sam Lopata and a Mommie Dearest loving fuss from la patronne, Pari Dulac, make La Boheme (24 Minetta Lane) a cozy nest for perfect little pizzas – to be sprinkled with herb-and-pepper-steeped olive oil just before you taste. Bistro entrées, grilled Cornish hen, pepper steak, trout grenobloise, run $13.50 to $17, with wines fairly priced to match.
La Tulipe (104 West 13th Street) seems softer, elegant as ever, less arrogant, with its old standards pleasingly delicious – fragrant Parmesan-cheese soufflé, squab with cabbage, luscious cod and sliced potato all crusted and garlicky, the surprisingly powerful apricot soufflé, and splendid thin, thin apple tart.
Go to John’s Pizzeria (278 Bleecker Street) for old-time classic New York coal-oven pies. And Il Mulino (86 West 3rd Street) for wonderfully oversauced pasta and great veal chops, for the manna that crowds the table without your asking – garlic bread, a mountain of Parmesan to hack away at, garlicky bruschetta, greasy fried zucchini. Lunch is serene and uncrowded, but at night, there’s a guaranteed 45-minute wait.
There’s a fierce (and garlicky) chauvinist flavor and unflagging passion at Provence (38 MacDougal Street), where the locals rub elbows with uptown migrants in the crowded front room. Patricia and Michel Jean keep up an intense energy. Pieds and paquets – lamb’s feet and tripe from an Amish market – is his current obsession, along with the house’s inevitables: glazed mash of salt cod and potato, spicy fish soup with satiny rouille, roast baby chicken with whole garlic cloves, and first-rate rabbit stewed in red wine thickened with unsweetened chocolate. Definitely finish with the crème brulee.
What will happen to the kitchen at 150 Wooster now that chef Ali Barker has whisked off? No matter. The throb and wrench of people watching is what really counts here. And I’m an incurable voyeur.
There’s always a line around the corner at Jerry’s (101 Prince Street) because the price is right and the sandwiches are good at this tacky, tarnished luncheonette. The food has been better and worse at the Soho Kitchen and Bar (103 Greene Street), but the troops three-deep at the 120-foot bar clearly don’t care. They wait 45 minutes for a table after nine on weekends, and grape-nuts flourish – they order a flight of seven Pinot Noirs or six Cabernets by the “tasting” glass from the 110-bottle cruvinet to sip and compare. There’s no wine bar to beat it.
Alison Price has put Dominick on the map with her small, romantic retreat in Nowheresville (Alison on Dominick Street, 38 Dominick Street). Behind the blue velvet curtain, Thomas Valenti braises soulful lamb shank to serve with favas and wilted chicory. His roasted guinea hen with savory olive risotto and rabbit with barley are a lure for uptowners who travel by tummy. Delicate grapefruit and orange terrine in tea-scented sauce and rich homemade ice creams are equally winning.
The cool minimalism of Arquà (281 Church Street) is more to admire than to cozy in, but if chef-padrone Leonardo Pulito takes you in hand, there will be lush chopped-tomato bruschetta with a blast of garlic and grilled vegetables to taste. Cotechino sausage with lentils, duck sausage with big white beans, and artichokes with oily crumbs and bacon are inspired starters. One night’s Barolo-steeped risotto, gnocchi with herbed tomato, calamari on soft polenta, chicken baked with whole roasted shallots in a thick Paduan sauce, and a melting mountain of osso buco explain why Arquà’s loyalists make the long trek. Wall Street and artist neighbors come for lunch.
Drew Nieporent and his crew in cat burglar black run Montrachet, a warm neighborhood storefront (239 West Broadway) on a street that runs the wrong way. So uptowners often arrive late and disgruntled, but Debra Ponzek’s delicious, uncomplicated cooking and a good wine – often something not yet on the list – quickly restore calm. There are three prix fixes ($25, $29, and $45) as well as a la carte classics: the vegetable-and-pasta terrine with hot tomato butter, salmon with lentils in red wine, baby pheasant with orzo and olives, lobster different every night (this evening, a perfection in a haze of curry with deep-fried leek strings), and roast chicken with garlic-and-potato puree. Sweet bets: hot banana tart with praline ice cream and, just now, sublime pumpkin soufflé.
Manhattan’s best-loved, Chanterelle, in its new spare luxury of the landmark Mercantile Exchange Building (2 Harrison Street), is peachy and serene, very special, very civilized. On Grand Street a decade ago, the only light in the shadowed gloom, David Waltuck was “the daring young man.” Today, Chanterelle fans – many of them courted, even married, and courted again here – know what to expect. Seafood sausage, liver of lotte, perfect rosy foie gras, red snapper in a leek-strewn puddle of red wine, intense sorbet and perfect ice cream, cookies, and candied grapefruit peel, truffles… and Karen Waltuck everywhere.
The spruced-up cafeteria that is Odeon (145 West Broadway) can still draw a savvy crowd of mixed up Zip Codes. Recently, a friend waited twenty minutes for a table at 1 a.m. Tonight is a half-mast Monday, and the kitchen has the blues – even the chicory is weary, the pasta soggy as wet paper, the calamari abused. And just a few months ago, the gently priced bistro fare here was surprisingly pleasant. Still, I’ve loved Odeon long enough now; I know I’ll come back.
Canal Bar (511 Greenwich Street) still feeds a stylishly grungy downtown rabble –strutters in black, pale androgynes. The other night, with just seven tables claimed round about midnight, the kitchen was clicking – turning out lively pizza, a luscious grilled-chicken-Parmesan-and-arugula sandwich, and a superlative burger on a great roll with good homemade chips. Plans to “just taste” dessert were foiled by the fine lemon tart with toasted almonds, achingly lush raspberry gratin with orange sauce, and splendid apple tart with vanilla ice cream.
If all the rejects of 150 Wooster would just zip into something black and migrate here, fate could do a flip-flop.