March 16, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Time and Again, Minetta Tavern

That faint smile suggests Keith McNally is pleased with scrubbed-up Minetta Lane. Photo: Steven Richter
That faint smile suggests Keith McNally is pleased with scrubbed-up Minetta Lane. Photo: Steven Richter

        Forks clashed, egos were mashed. A committee mulled the list of reservation hopefuls that afternoon, and by seven the chosen began to claim their tables at the new old Minetta Tavern, redundant us surprisingly among them.  Second night at a table with a view of the back room drama and into the bar. Though I’ve forty years as a restaurant critic and a decade of passionate eating before that, it’s my first look at the seven decade-old village cubby, hangout of prize fighters, Beat writers, serious drinkers, the sentimental and now, Keith McNally loyalists.


Out of the past comes Minetta’s creamy Billi Bi soup. Photo: Steven Richter
        Tattoo parlors and nicotine-stained bars dominate this stretch of MacDougal; around the corner sex shops smirk on Minetta Lane.  But McNally likes to pioneer a turf – Balthazar, once a far east outpost of Soho, Pastis, in the Meet Market when it still smelled of meat and not yet of Jeffrey’s, Schiller’s, scruffing right into the Lower East Side.  I won’t pretend to personally testify as to what’s new or what’s old here.  Just to report: it looks good, this 85-seat bistro.  Clean, spiffed up, vintage photos and period friezes gleaming over the bar, another McNally Time and Again mirage. Himself glad handing familiars en route to the greeting stand, faintly smiling.  (As I’ve written, he’s the dour McNally, studied and anxious even now.)
 
Table games: You know who you are, even if I don’t.  Photo:Steven Richter 
        For the moment, and possibly from now on, this will be the stage to parade your bona fides. Amazingly, even on this second night, with his partners Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson in the kitchen, service flows, tables turn. There’s pleasure in everything we’re eating: creamy Billi Bi, the ancienne French mussel soup, the sternly bitter crunch of dandelion greens (salade de pissenlit) with sieved egg and anchovy vinaigrette, calamari stuffed with salt cod and wrapped in piquillo peppers with a tang of preserved lemon.  A tasting of tartare offers three biggish scoops – veal with black truffle and chervil, lamb with argan oil, olives and mint, and the beef classic with mustard and cornichons – a delicious exercise to share. 

French nonchalance improvised pasta Za Za with its fried egg on top. Photo: Steven Richter 

 
Stuffed calamari. Photo: Steven Richter
        There’s laid back French attitude in the sunny side up fried egg you smash to sauce the pasta Za Za, fresh fettuccine with pancetta, sage and parmesan named for the French concierge who improvised it for Nasr’s sister (Daily Candy testifies). Filet mignon with its smear of salty Roquefort is no more than it should be.  But the roasted chicken is remarkable – skin-crisped, flesh moist, if not faintly pink, with splendid spinach and cheesy aligote potatoes alongside. Choose your burger: the Minetta, with cheddar and caramelized onions at $16, or the Black Label, a prime, dry-aged, hand-cut beauty at $26.  No wonder The Road Food Warrior, my resident burgermeister seems slow to share. The prestige patty is a supremely juicy chunk of meat slathered with caramelized onions and the same legendary fries we know from Balthazar.  The $9 glass of Malbec from Cahors is good enough.

 

 
Great burger, glorious fries are worth the $26 splurge. Photo: Steven Richter

        Minetta Tavern is not cheap.  It doesn’t need to be, after all, but it’s not expensive.  Hors d’oeuvres start at $10, with lobster salade at $26; entrees offer Za Za pasta at $16 and run up to $90 for a côte de boeuf for two with roasted marrow bones and a “Little Gem lettuce salad.”

        Sharing an order of passion fruit and blood orange sorbet lets us linger as latecomers arrive. Famous? Perhaps in their own mind.  But then, we’re not Gawker so we may just be behind the times.  Watching a late-materializing apparition, brother Brian McNally schmoozing the customers, reminds me of historic moments in Manhattan night life, of long gone Canal Bar and 150 Wooster Street.

        I suppose it’s just as well I cannot read minds.  I sleep better. 

113 MacDougal Street at Minetta Lane 212 475 3850. Open seven days a week for dinner from 5:30 pm to midnight and a "late supper" from 12 to 1 am.
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