April 15, 1991 | Vintage Insatiable

The Joy of Rex

 

          The drumbeat for Rex hit my satellite dish last fall. Another playpen for restless youth, hardly an imperative for the finicky gourmand in me. Not that I have disdain for beautiful blue-eyed boys (Rex’s Will Regan is a hunk, reconnaissance reports). Nor am I indifferent to nocturnal haunts that draw fashion’s off-duty gazelles. It’s a kick to get a floor show for the price of one’s seared tuna. With no thought at all of gastronomic connection, I finally got myself down to the shabby teens of Sixth Avenue (it deserves no loftier name down here) just to stem the nagging from Rex’s friends, investors, and Will Regan groupies.

 

          From the scruff street, you confront the hulks at the velvet rope. Secretly, I cringe (do you ever escape the gawky twelve-year-old you used to be?), but I stand tall and flutter my bunny fur as if it were sable. What a letdown. Here I am in a soot-black entry of no charm getting the 180-degree angle of mouth from a slinky dominatrix. One blink of her eyes, and I know that what I am wearing went out of style a month ago. Yet somehow she accepts me, and I am seated—in an almost deserted dump, nothing much more than a pressed-tin-lined storefront painted kelly green and taxi gold with burgundy polyester draping the tables and a few sconces tossing light up. “Neo-romantic I call this,” says my companion. A neo-romantic stretch if there ever was one.

 

          So what a surprise. In an hour, the shop is packed, full of attractive people in effortless dress (they don’t seem to be obsessed with looking ugly, androgynous, or sleazy enough to get arrested). Like Regan (who traded interest-rate swaps for National Westminster Bank) and his reformed-lawyer partner, David Rabin, they are chastened high-rollers of the eighties, domestic and imported (the latter with cigarette as permanent appendage), plus mannequins in all the skin tones of Benetton. And even more shocking: The food is good. I can’t get that giant rectangle of crispy, rich wild-mushroom-and-goat-cheese lasagna out of my mind—or the live, hot jazz that takes over ten-ish. The place feels unself-conscious, improvisational, and yet the lemon-curd tart is serious. And you can dance it all off upstairs in the dark, low-ceilinged disco that now and then echoes below.

 

          You’ve got to be in the mood for Rex. And when you are, chef Frank Rhodes’s cooking is a delicious dividend that can cost you $100 for two at the high end if you’re hungry and thirsty, and a minimum of $15 plus tax and tip if you’re anorectic, disciplined, or broke. Rhodes, the original chef of the Gotham Bar & Grill, has been in and out of a lot of kitchens and knows what we want to eat: pasta and seafood, peppery greens and beans. He isn’t caught up in reinventing the chicken, and his food is deftly seasoned and full of flavor—no pretentious still life’s, no overreach.

 

          Grilled eggplant and pepper blend into a zesty soup. Matchsticks of bacon and lumps of Stilton punctuate a salad of spicy greens. Oysters roasted with a splash of port are good, even better with a tangle of deep-fried-ginger frizzies. Juniper-cured salmon coats the plate with snippets of dill and dots of peppers, onions, and capers. Grilled mushrooms are served with small pads of polenta; Gorgonzola ravioli, with porcini (and the pasta is tough). But one night’s special fusilli with smoked salmon, asparagus, and cream is a perfection of balance. A special starter, tuna three ways—sashimi, seared-edge, and tartare in pastry—with greens makes a fine tasting.

 

          I’d find it hard not to order my favorite lasagna, but most everything else is a notch above good, too: grilled tuna with black-olive-and-thyme vinaigrette, grilled duck breast and confit with lentils and wok-fried greens, seared salmon with white beans and mushrooms, a small flattened chicken with rosemary. The wine list is brief and needs more choices on the low end.

 

          Rhodes even does the desserts himself, and has fun painting streaks of raspberry lightning across the crème-brûlée plate, up and over the custard without breaking the line, or creating playful abstracts reminiscent of Pollock and Miró. His chocolate cake is a bit dry but not too sweet, the apple tart with cinnamon ice cream is tasty, and strawberries in passion-fruit nectar make a tart-and-sweet finale, just as the corner tables are moved away to make room for that lusty jazz combo.

Rex, 579 Sixth Avenue, near 16th (741-0080). Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday 7p.m. to 12:30 a.m. A.E., M.C., V.

 

***

 

          What’s wrong with the Shark Bar is the name. Perhaps they figured no one would come if they called it the Teddy Bear Club. I didn’t know the place when it was just a bar and Upper West Side hangout, before it moved down Amsterdam to fill the air with good soul-food smells. But it’s not the least bit ferocious, and the pulse is pounding. Even on Tuesday, it’s tough to slide through the crowd at the bar, flirting, networking, catching the Knicks on the telly—a man reading aloud from a manuscript to his date, good-looking women, brawny guys in media-touting jackets, one in a cap that say CBS NEWS WITH DAN RATHER who is definitely not Dan.

 

          Upstairs, the dining parlor is crowded, too—Jackie Mason snitching a bit from Raoul Felder’s plate at a big round table, Ashford and Simpson posing for the paparazzi with a dozen pals at a birthday. The trio of owners—two white, one black—want this to be an oasis of harmony. It’s a wondrously stylish oasis: epaulets and appliqué, men in fabric feathers and leather jodhpurs, women in extraordinary patchwork and embossed coats, mad-hatter velour’s and major earrings, red suede ankle boots on four-inch heels…women who are a walking testimonial that big is beautiful.

 

          And chef Laurita Roc is as dazzling as anyone. She actually stirs the pots in her daring décolletage under a scarlet velvet topper, a matching twist of velvet in her great mane of hair. It was Laurita who took American soul food to London twenty years ago, then came back to town as a caterer and moth of seven children. She wants you to feel you’re dining in your grandmother’s living room.

 

          If only everything that emerged from the kitchen were as sensational as the sweet-potato muffins, the biscuits, the cakelike, nibblet-flecked corn bread keeping warm in a napkin bunting. But even so, the barbecue—wings, ribs, or half a chicken—is good, sticky and sweet. One night’s special beer-baked chicken is moist and delicious, as is the same smallish bird deep-fried but not battered (it would be crisper if it weren’t smothered in honeyed sauce).

 

          The quaint hokiness of the menu is definitely teddy-bear: Old Deacon John’s special salmon croquettes, Mike’s pork chops “with lots of love and onions.” Deep-fried cornmeal-dusted catfish strips are better than the itsy crawfish, which could be anything at all—or nothing at all—inside their crumbled crust. As Laurita herself will tell you, her mother was not a good cook except for her lima-bean soup with smoked turkey. That’s on the menu, too, along with Laurita’s “down-home seafood gumbo.”

 

          Alas, there is too much minced raw garlic tossed around here, a habit that can add an acrid note to salmon croquettes, the black-eyed peas, and Mom’s soup. Sweetening the garlic slowly in butter or oil would help. But the place does feel like Grandmother’s with a parade of women often Laurita herself, stopping by to make sure you’ve got enough biscuits, and even a four-year-old wanting to try on your hat.

 

          Entrées ($9.95 to $15.95) come on nouvelle-cuisine-size dishes in ancienne-cuisine-size portions—pan-blackened yellowfin tuna, deep-fried catfish, turkey meat loaf, and one evening, barbecued swordfish with a spicy kick—everything with a choice of two “sides”: “mean greens,” spectacular candied yams, richly mayoed potato salad, delicious macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, string beans cooked to a pale yellow-green. Exactly the way they were at Grandma’s.

 

          Best by far of the home-baked desserts are warm sweet-potato pie and the rich old-fashioned chocolate cake in a giant chunk that could certainly satisfy a trio of chocoholics. It’s not easy to stop nibbling the brownie, a sweet, primitive frosted square. But the apple pie, with its slightly gummy dough, looks better than it tastes. Perhaps summer’s ripe peaches will help Laurita’s “Oh Slap My Face” peach cobbler live up to its name.

 

          A trip downstairs is a must. There’s a door marked MEN’S and another that’s pink, behind it more lace and satin baby rosebuds than you’ve seen since your days in a bassinet. Even the toilet paper sits in a lace-lined basket.

 

          At brunch, the biscuits are fresh and crumbly. There’s raspberry jam and excellent nonstop coffee. The French toast—thick cuts of brioche—meets very fussy specifications: double soaked, eggy all the way through, as requested. It comes with strawberries and apple butter (but today it’s thick caramelized slices of apple), turkey sausage, ham, or bacon, and a drink on the $10.95 prix fixe. The onion-mushroom-peppers-bacon-and-cheese-filled country omelet is soft and moist, served with a tasty mess of salty home fries and an à la carte extra: buttery grits. This Saturday, Laurita herself’s at the range, searing panfried steak (with two eggs) or salmon croquettes (with eggs and home fries) or dishing up “Jimmy’s Southern fried chicken with waffles.”

 

          The Shark Bar is the fifth restaurant to occupy this long, narrow space on Amsterdam. “Do you think we’ll be just another flash in the pan, too?” asks the amiable waiter bringing more muffins. I hope not.

 

Shark Bar. 307 Amsterdam Avenue, near 75th (875-8500). Lunch, Monday through Friday, and Saturday and Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday and Sundays 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., Fridays and Saturdays till 2 a.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.

 





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