September 30, 1985 | Vintage Insatiable

Gael Grazes

        Nibbling and trolling – grazing – is our new mode of eating, and I rather like it. Taxiing to the edges of civilization in the quest for the new, the hungry New Yorker suddenly seems oddly tolerant, as if the point of eating were no longer culinary epiphany but rather just a bit of calcium and fiber to fuel the evening’s networking, the morning’s jog.

        Sport-eating may be a yuppie invention, but even for us obsessed foodies – who have made fine dining a sacred rite – it’s nice to relax a little. I suspect almost anyone would be happy sharing a couturier pizza, sipping great wine by the glass, or divvying five appetizers with a trio of chums and calling it … a perfect dinner. Even  lumpy mashed potatoes appeal to nostalgia.

        True, not everyone can bear the sensory assault of wide-open spaces, with their built –in cacophony, the surge of lemming flesh fighting for a perch, and vacant servers doing community disservice between trips to the unemployment office. Others find the din exhilarating and the tricked-up nymphets with shocking-pink cowlicks mesmerizing.

       So read on. Grazing in more or less wide-open spaces – some lovable, a couple worthy of an anthropological expedition – is explored here, although definitely not in the order of my affection.

Fifth Avenue Grill

       The Fifth Avenue Grill is a pleasant-enough blooming of the California rash – an echo of Spago and Chez Panisse with its pizza, pasta, and viands tattooed by the grill. Vast it is, ivory-washed, with massive Corinthian columns and blond wood stairs climbing to a balcony perch, and the obligatory open kitchen where the chef may be spied sticking a finger in one ear.

       Noisy after dark – I watch our waitress strain to read our lips – the Grill is less clattery by day, though already crowded with serious business-lunchers seemingly pleased to find good food, contemporary and unfussed with. If they’re late getting back to work, they can blame it on the kitchen, which can be slow. Nothing I’ve tasted here would inspire a major detour, but the Fifth Avenue Grill is a welcome roost at a latitude where high-priced feederies are breaking out like chicken pox and boutiquification is in the cards.

      Perhaps I wouldn’t be quite so lukewarm if the house’s hand with seasoning were less cowardly. A dash of salt or a blast of Parmesan at table sometimes helps, but I’d rather the chef tended to it in the kitchen with lemon or vinegar, with shallots or ginger or snippings of fresh herbs. Still, though a hungry duo could conceivably spend $100 for dinner, grazing and sharing, they could while away the evening on much less.

      And there are satisfying moments. A melt of cheese on salad greens isn't really pure California (I tasted my first sautéed goat cheese on lettuce in Paris years ago), but this one – warm nutted Pipo Crème with herbed croutons perfumed with walnut oil – is very lush. A small huddle of clams come bathed in saffron-spiked broth in a tangle of carrot strings with bits of red pepper. And even though the special sorrel soup with a monogram swirl of crème fraîche is a shade too chilled, the taste triumphs.

      Mulard-duck terrine is dim and dull. Except for a really tasty tomato, basil, eggplant, and goat-cheese-pizza, these modish eight-inch pies are strangely lackadaisical, decked out with costly gewgaws (shredded duck, sun-dried tomato, wild mushrooms) but minus any savor. Soggy calzone is even more vapid.

      In contrast, pasta has definite oomph. Fettuccine with wild mushrooms, arugula, and bacon is a riot of tastes and deliciously rich, but mussels are an odd off-note in a zestiness of smoked sausage, tomato and red pepper on penne. Take comfort in knowing that even in the evening din, a bid for tuna or bluefish “underdone” reaches sensitive ears in the kitchen, provoking fish tender as can be – fresh, moist, just cooked. Impeccably poached halibut is served with a lovely corn pancake. And with every entrée, properly cooked vegetables – yellow squash, broccoli, and string beans – are just buttered and tossed (not arranged, not lashed together with scallion thread or tortured into voodoo hex signs).  Grilled game hen with herbs and lime is surprisingly juicy, lively, and a better bet than listless quail or rather pedestrian steak with Beaujolais and marrow. The red-alert blush of the roast pork loin scares off the usually intrepid tasters at our table – but I’m alive to say it is good, though the sauce tastes of chemistry.

      At lunch, large chunks of salmon could not be more carefully poached before being tossed with fusilli in a dill-flecked salad, but a stinginess of vinaigrette inspires a craving for mayonnaise. The garlicky sauce that arrives is the perfect tonic. No way to rescue the fiercely bitter ratatouille escorting a generosity of excellent bluefish. But lush ricotta-stuffed pillows of green ravioli in a soupy cream with confetti of red, green, and yellow pepper and ribbons of basil needs only a salty dose of Parmesan to counter a bit of blah.

      Desserts here are headily sweet. Try dense, moist chocolate-chestnut cake, lemon tart with julienne of candied citrus peel, and the sensuous ice creams of the New York Ice Company, with irresistible cookies.

The Fifth Avenue Grill, 102 Fifth Avenue. Now Closed.

***

Soho Kitchen and Bar

        It looks like the Soho Kitchen and Bar just grew around a series of existing masonry ledges and some radiators. And, in fact, it did. This soaring warehouse rectangle was once the pantry and kitchen for the Greene Street Café next door. But for some people, owning a restaurant is like eating potato chips – it’s impossible to settle for just one. Having successfully bonded serious American cooking with cool jazz at Greene Street, proprietor Tony Goldman longed to open a beanery hangout – hearty eating on the cheap with great wine by the glass – to draw downtowners and his own pals, musicians and artists, riding a high at seeing all their work on his walls.

        Goldman, you see, is the Medici of Greene Street. Instead of hiring an architect, he put his money into metal sculpture and grand canvases commissioned for the Soho Kitchen. It is he who hired artist Francoise Schein to design an illuminated subway map to sink into the sidewalk across the street. And when an uptown traditionalist complained about the primitive bathroom facilities below the Soho Kitchen, Goldman made the Florentine response. He asked sculptor Peter Bradley to come in with a blowtorch and etch a subterranean steel environment. But I’ll give you odds he has not yet got around to putting locks on the powder-room stalls.

        Thus, the Soho Kitchen, with its rollerdome bar and the longest Cruvinet line-up in town – the house can pour 96 wines by the glass and 14 champagnes at any moment – its red-neon NO SMOKING section, and the holograph of Goldman himself beckoning passersby from the front window, is the fruit of one mans personal megalomania. But it works.

        Those are Sotho neighbors at the bar – artists and musicians, and probably Tony Goldman himself. The mix is lively, and even at its most boisterous, you can actually speak below a shout. Best of all, the people look real, not self-consciously outrageous or calculatedly dernier cru. The kitchen is somewhat exposed – a low décolletage but not total nudity. Prices are gentle: pizza under $6, entrées $8.95 to $10.75, with a quality $2.95 hamburger available at the bar. The crisp ten-and-a-half-inch crackling-thin pizzas are wonderful. And it’s fun to share a “flight,” eight or so related wines in a comparative tasting. What is good is very good. But, sad to say, what is not is therefore doubly disappointing.

        How perverse that the sensibility capable of blending a really zesty gazpacho and deliciously tangy yogurt-cucumber soup is guilty of pea-soup sludge. Or that the hand that produces impeccably fried catfish with a tastily perfumed ratatouille and crisp-fried soft-shell crabs on a mound of skin-on fries is also the perpetrator of savorless sea scallops (admittedly well cooked) in a gluey sauce. Chef Lee Rubin’s short ribs with mashed potatoes is home-style heaven, but I’ve yet to taste a stew I cared to eat. Every day there’s a vegetable dish. It might be a pepper, a tomato, and two halves of a zucchini, each stuffed differently and deliciously, or a handsome mix charred by the grill, lacking only a touch of garlic – or, alas, insipid ratatouille on rice with melted cheese. Fresh pesto sparkles on tender tortellini. Scalloped potatoes with garlic are sublime. But capellini with basiled tomato sauce is just mediocre. And someone has massacred the string beans.

        Still, this is a spectacular wine bar and a cozy hangout, and the regulars are infinitely less demanding than I. At theses prices, it’s easy to feel content. And since Tony Goldman is a special friend, naturally I nag him all the time. And the menu keeps evolving. Last time I tasted them, the desserts were mostly irresistible: celestial lemon-blackberry trifle with whipped-cream ruffles, fine strawberry-macadamia-nut tart, and a molten chocolate mud pie that still haunts me. Four of us shared an $11 taste of Eiswein… like melted jellybeans. We all felt very rich. The Soho Kitchen is fun.
 

The Soho Kitchen and Bar, 103 Greene Street. Now Closed. 

 
***

Petaluma

        In the beginning, I had no hope for Petaluma. It seemed to be pure hype, just another splash in a downpour of chic. Clearly, hugs from the critics were not needed. From the day the door opened, Petaluma was a bustling yuppie playpen. Elio Guaitolini and his partner, Anne Isaak, had worked hard a few blocks north, forging restaurant success with Elio’s, so why shouldn’t their stylish clone of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago find instant affection? Let them eat couterier pizza and baked goat cheese, pasta with a Chinese accent, hot-off-the-grill sea critters beside the inevitable open kitchen. It’s the proven formula of the eighties – downtown grazing at a convenient uptown address.

        But nothing tasted that first evening justified the 45-minute wait to sit in Siberia. Nor did watching the waiter’s juggling act, managing to carry three glasses of water in one hand by sticking a finger in each. Certainly not the hassle of borrowing money because I’d forgotten that Elio doesn’t deal in plastic. Still, the peach sheen of the room casts a cosmetic glow. The baffled racket is almost benign. And I like to see the specials of the day typed, Lucite-framed, and set upon the table for leisurely contemplation. It beats the usual memory-straining verbal recitation. And the tariffs are moderated here. Two can share and dabble for under $50, though with entrées $5.50 to $15, a couple of serious eaters might spend much more (there’s a $13 food minimum).

        Happily, by late spring Petaluma seems less green, peachier in every way. Perhaps the young executives clustered at the bar are a bit too neat and polished. But some of the have the decency to be 30, even older, though tightly toned and toothed and cleverly blonded. Now the polenta of the day is positively voluptuous – crisp sautéed slices, firm and fresh, with twigs of asparagus and almond thins in a wonderfully rich cream. Though still soggy at the heart, and scantily dressed, the pizzas are somewhat better than before. And a generous cut of swordfish striped by the grill is splendid with lemon butter and a bit of tarragon. True, the mouth that first tasted a seafood sausage at Taillevent in Paris would find Petaluma’s a pasty proletariat even in its satin saffron butter.

        Encouraged even so, I return with half a down friends. The kitchen’s creaking again. Corn chowder looks lovely yet is totally tasteless. Calamari is tough and vapid. There’s sand in the salad greens. Imagine all this on one mound of fettuccine: chicken, Chinese cabbage, roasted red peppers, coriander, and scallions – but not a spark of taste. Tonight, even the swordfish is a loss. Indeed, judging from the smell, it might have been lost quite a while. Still, the crab cakes aren’t bad. The hamburger comes in a delicious roll, and the coleslaw’s a winner.

       Tangy lemon curd graces a flaky tart. There is raspberry cheesecake, too, and a huge chocolate sundae may soothe any disgruntles. Orange caramel custard is so good that if you remember to bring cash, you may depart on a high. The yin and yang at Petaluma makes me fear that I can promise nothing but inconsistency. Even that is not guaranteed.

Petaluma, 1356 First Avenue, at 73rd Street

***

America

        It’s not an innate prejudice against grazing in a gymnasium that sets my teeth on edge at America, a vast sports arena of reverberating clamor. And it’s surely not any highfalutin disdain for America’s dormitory cuisine. I could dine beatifically in the center ring of a circus (which this is) if it were benignly sound-muted (which it isn't) and if the menials knew their ears from their elbows (don’t even ask). Peanut butter, hush puppies, and Buffalo chicken wings area few of my favorite things.

        Everybody in my world got to America before me. I harvested the fruits of their reconnaissance. But nothing I heard quite hinted at the humiliation potential witnessed that first evening of personal exploration. An applicant for admission ahead of us had climbed two steps without permission. “Get off that step,” one of two wardens commands. The challenged hopeful hesitates. “Get down,” the doorman screams. “Down. Down. You’re not getting in. That’s it.” It is a good imitation of Himmler. His cooler partner pulls him back, and then turns to us – standing there, stunned: “You two, go on in.”

        Whoosh. We are swallowed by the hurricane. If only I’d brought my little Hunting World earplugs. All 350 schoolroom seats ($47 each) seem to be occupied. I spy a sextet of middle-aged physicians and their wives. They look dazed. Next to this, Bellevue’s emergency room on the night of a full moon would make the perfect setting for a romantic supper. The crowd is four-and-five-deep at the bar – kids mostly, I’d say twelve to twenty – and (how to put this without seeming hideously snobby?) they look like they come from… unfamiliar Zip Codes.

        Michael Weinstein strikes again. The cunning that brought us Ernie’s, the Saloon, the Metropolitan Cafe, and more (the man feeds 50,000 mouths a week) hits its apogee. Once your pulse calms – if you aren’t numb from sensory overload – you may admire the economic brilliance of Weinstein’s scheme: the ultimate runway effect, the bar set on an elevated pink-and-green terrazzo stage, boosting liquor sales to subsidize the gentle pricing here.

        Neon streaks overhead. Filters on track lights make stars on the floor. Weinstein asked designer Anthony Grammenopoulos (MGS Architects) for “a poetic elevation of American heroes” and got glorious murals in “the Navajo Indian palette of soft peach and earth tones” – subtle, almost mirage like visions of America.

        For an insatiable gourmand, the menu is sublime torture, an irresistible roll call of adventure and nostalgia. How to choose? Shall it be apple fritters and Texas onion rings, southern-fried okra or Charleston cheese grits? Don’t you want to try Three Wrecked on a Raft (eggs “adrift in a Cajun chicken bog”) and Seminole gator chipolatas, or Albuquerque blue-corn tostadas with sour cream, guacamole, and salmon caviar? What about a Cajun Po’ Boy or a fluffernuttter…wait! Can’t we share a potato-crust pizza with goat cheese and some Tennessee black-bottom pie? There is everything American to drink, too, from egg creams to pineapple wine from Hawaii. You figure it will take weeks of visits to explore the 191 offerings on this list. Here's the good news. Once will be enough.

        Never mind that the kitchen extends the whole width of this 10,000-square-foot stadium – the chef has as much respect for his pastrami as for his sushi. Minimal. I’m not sure how the crew manages to spew forth this stuff, but I imagine vast lockers of frozen and pre-formed victuals popped into the microwave, dished up in gargantuan portions, garnished from a bathtub of al dente veggies. Granted, the serving crew in Hawaiian shirts can be good-looking. But there are clods among them, bringing entrées before appetizer plates are cleared, begging your assistance in cleaning up because their hands are burning. They agree that the salad should come with dressing but never bring it. And they scrape garbage from plates right under your nose.

        Equally unlovable: the pig-pull platter with pig too tough to pull or chew, lumpy “dream whips” – mashed potatoes with a gravy perhaps designed to taste canned – tortillas as delectable as Grandma’s antimacassar, the nastiest guacamole ever encountered (were the avocados made by machine in Ohio?), mushy pastas swimming in sauce, rubbery eggs and dried out chicken livers, sea creatures that taste faintly antique, burned toast, grilled mushrooms with a scent mimicking petroleum, tough salad greens sometimes yellowed, grimly gray duck sausage that would inspire a self-respecting duck to sue for defamation, overcooked tuna abused by I cant guess what in the marinade. And al dente rice does not make rice pudding.

        To preserve sanity, most if this tasting was done at lunch, which is infinitely less punishing. Sun streams through the skylight over the deserted bar, and you can hear the music, everything from Simon and Garfunkel looking for America to “Blue Bayou” and patriotic marches. Businessmen in suntan gabardine come. So do their secretaries. You can have a burger and a Yoo-Hoo for under $10 – even split a yummy brownie. And the entrées wont break you, either $5.95 to $14.95. The macaroni is very cheesy (not as crisp as my mom’s but good). I have a weakness for dormitory meat loaf and chili that tastes like Hormel’s. The pizzas are safe. Thickly breaded, gluey crab cakes are almost edible. Grilled prawns are somewhat soft but savory. A special salad of shrimp in a light basil cream is a triumph – tons of shrimp and very tasty (I imagine I’ve been recognized, but it could just be innocent generosity in the kitchen). When it isn't stale, Death by Chocolate is quite intense – frosting with a bit of cake. Hot-butterscotch sundae is skimpy. But New Orleans pralines are great with a giant coffee cup of vanilla-bean ice cream. And though I’ve sworn off white chocolate forever, I must admit the macadamia mousse is elegant.

        A scattering of friends, technically adults, insists they love America. For sure, if you’re feeling logy, the shock will wake you. America is definitely worth an anthropological expedition.

America, 9 East 19th Street

***

Bar Lui

        Bar Lui is the triumph of packaging over content. Hot. It looks really hot. Bouncers play ruby-velvet-rope domination games on the sidewalk. Cobalt blue glows like sky wars through the glass marquee above a bar that slithers from Broadway to Mercer Street, getting the max in BTU’s from a long, tall, gangly space. And it is hot. Jammed from day one. Everyone looks infinitely nubile, highly shopped, assertively coiffed – the girls shorn, the guys often not. They cruise. They connect. They talk at teach other seemingly oblivious to the mega-decibel din. My companion, looking like a Martian in his business suit, believes everyone under 40 is disco-deafened. “They read lips,” he mutters.

        There’s a twenty-minute wait for a table, so we offer to eat at the bar – an appealing option here. Alas, there’s not a vacant stool at 250 feet of bar, so we lean and loll till we inherit a tiny booth. There’s a troop of staff here. Surely not everyone is a bubblehead, but our waitress is no asset. She notices there is only a quarter inch of grated Parmesan left in the cup, and leaves it anyway. Having delivered one dessert, she returns eventually with the second. “Here’s your other thing,” she declares.

        Rumor has it the chef is good, overwhelmed by 300 trolling mouths. What a disappointment, the “Contemporary Italian” menu reads like poetry. Imagine ravioli stuffed with eggplant and thyme-scented goat cheese. Envision pappardelle with lobster butter and Pernod, linguine tapenade with grilled salmon, filet mignon with braised radicchio and Gorgonzola fondue, and meat loaf stuffed with roasted garlic, mushrooms, and fennel. If you’re mad about food, you could faint just trying to decide.

        The trompe l’oeil bread is the giveaway. It looks like the fabulous crusty product of Policastro. It is tasteless imitation. Fried calamari rings have as much character as supermarket frozen. A swamp of topping slides off the thick tasteless crust of a fennel-sausage pizza. Fetid garlic spoils a pizza bianco. And the same too-strong garlic taints grilled eggplant steak as well as nuova Milanese noodles – tagliatelle with grilled radicchio and nubbins of scallops so bland they could be rubber erasers. At lunch one summer Saturday – only a scattering of tables is occupied (perhaps punklets sleep late) – a wonderfully handsome frittata layered with fettuccine, zucchini, tomato, and Fontina is vulcanized. Perfect poached egg in a compote of fresh vegetables on grilled peasant bread sounds – and looks – sensational, but it just doesn’t work with half-cooked vegetables. Another perfect poached egg can’t rescue a salad based on spinach, overdone duck liver, soggy bits of bacon, and wilted greens.

        It’s not often that I can’t persuade taster friends to linger for dessert. But at two separate meals here, I encountered full-scale rebellion. Thus I can report only that fruit pâté, with its foamy texture, is cheerless, and the semifreddo is a mixed bag – smooth dark chocolate, icy strawberry, and inoffensive pistachio.

        But let’s not be so stuffy. The tiny gnocchi aren’t bad at all, even if the strong tomato sauce does obscure any saffron allegedly present, and the rigatoni with sausage and wild mushrooms is pleasant. Prices here are gentle by today’s warped standards: pastas $6.95 and up, pizzas all under $8, entrées $7.50 to $14, lunchtime sandwiches $5.25 and up. Forget about eating. Drink and nibble. Make it a night for pretty-young-thing-watching and sociology.

Bar Lui, 625 Broadway, near Houston Street. Now Closed. 

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