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Living in Manhattan, that small island, one gets accustomed to the constant evolution of city neighborhoods, the ever-creeping gentrification of all habitable hovels. The loading docks of the Meatpacking District are now mere backdrop for overcrowded restaurants serving French fare and Asian "street food." Ancient historical texts prove there were once artists in SoHo. What's now known as the East Village was, 60 years ago, just the upper reaches of that great immigrant melting-pot flash point, the Lower East Side. The 1939 WPA guide described it as "crowded, noisy, squalid in many of its aspects." Not long after, bohemian artists settled in East Village tenements, followed by squatters, punks, then poseurs. Today, squalor has pretty much been priced out of the neighborhood. Still, it is a bit jarring to be seated in a candlelit restaurant, looking out onto Avenue A—due south of the once riot-prone Tompkins Square Park—when suddenly the smell of black truffles comes wafting out of the kitchen.
It's one of those "only in New York, kids" moments, and the truffles do smell great. Too bad the restaurant stinks. One more upmarket entry in the increasingly crowded East Village dining scene, it's just a dull relation of some uptown Italian place. The Times said they were serving $60 specials, so I thought I'd see what people eating such things on Avenue A looked like. (They look like they'd rather be eating on the Upper East Side.)
Chances are something more interesting will replace this truffle joint, as this has become one of the city's most exciting, sometimes amusing restaurant regions. Restaurants and wine bars open up weekly in the storefronts and Ukrainian theaters of the East Village and, farther south, amid the reclaimed tenements and bodegas of the Lower East Side. In fact, since I started writing this sentence, a post-ironic hipster Chinese place has opened on Avenue B (No. 1 Chinese), someone's cooking Creole on Second Avenue (Natchez), and Sasha Petraske, of the secretive Milk & Honey bar, is rumored to be opening something new on the Lower East Side.
Like all overnight successes, the Downtown East dining scene took years to break out. Jimmy Bradley, who opened The Mermaid Inn last year on Second Avenue, used to live in the neighborhood, eating at places like the east European diner Veselka and Korean hipster pioneer Dok Suni's. But man cannot live on pierogis and bibimbap alone. In 1995 he opened Opaline, a large clubby restaurant that was probably ahead of its time. When he returned last year with Mermaid, Bradley (who also built Red Cat in the culinary wasteland of far-west Chelsea) had a fair amount of company in his old neighborhood. Gabrielle Hamilton had given dinky 1st Street a good name with Prune, the tiny, spectacular restaurant she opened in 1999. Wylie Dufresne had made a name for himself that same year at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, serving rich short ribs, cooked down to near-carmelization, to people who would have patted themselves on the back for finding Clinton Street if there had been room in the cramped quarters to move their arms. Dufresne grew up around here, and though he's done stints at Jean Georges and Palladin, he says he's downtown for good. His 71 Clinton spawned a little restaurant row—Alias, aKa Cafe, Crudo, the wine bar Punch & Judy—and he's moved on to another restaurant up the block called wd-50. "I don't see it as competition," Dufresne says of the spate of new local restaurants opening up all around him. "It brings people to the neighborhood, which is a good thing. Unfortunately I haven't had time to try many places myself because I'm too busy here."
He's not the only one. Nobody can eat fast enough to keep up. Fortunately I had some time to try, and offer an annotated snapshot of the evolving smorgasbord out East.
The short piece of 1st Street between First and Second Avenues, a gas station on one end and a little concrete park with WPA-built handball courts on the other, is like a delicate little flower you see bravely growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. An unlikely city miracle, in other words—which aptly describes the little patch of restaurants that have somehow flourished here. Chez Es Saada is a fashionable Middle Eastern lounge-restaurant with belly dancers and a new design from Israeli artist Izhar Patkin. There's Thai-ish food at The Elephant.
The best of the snug lot is Prune, where the food is easy to like and hard to pin down. Owner Gabrielle Hamilton was guided, she says, by what she didn't want Prune to be: "Nothing overly garnished. I didn't want world cuisine, ill-informed fusion, tall food, or tuna tartare." Instead there are Triscuits dressed up with sardines, homey offerings like shrimp toasts, rich monkfish liver, braised rabbit legs, and roast suckling pig. The menu changes often, its range eclectic without being goofy, and the room, with its short zinc bar and cramped tables, hums along with good cheer, and is not crashingly loud. The whole place just works.
Hearth, a recent addition, is also the boldest attempt yet to fully airlift a top-quality dining experience into the East Village. Chef-owner Marco Canora used to be at Craft, and before that, Gramercy Tavern. His new hipster surroundings don't distract him from a serious menu of hearty, sophisticated fare: game-bird terrine, foie gras torchon, a braised lamb shoulder with lamb tongue and rib meat. But you just can't help feeling that the restaurant has wandered into the wrong neighborhood. Service and food are expertly handled, though the latter is a bit short on seasoning and excitement—until, that is, the apple cider doughnuts arrive. Downtown is alive again when Lauren Dawson's desserts appear.
Dip below Houston Street and we're in the still-different world of the Lower East Side. Common wisdom among jaded locals is that the LES has been fully co-opted, whitewashed, and deprived of its local flair. But walk the streets and you'll find a neighborhood that's still in transition: It remains a definitely weird New York kind of place. Boutique stores whose inventory is so rarefied you can't tell what they're selling are just down the block from the $99-leather-jacket emporiums where owners try to outshout one another like the barkers and fruit sellers of the neighborhood's immigrant past. So even though the area's long been "discovered," the serious restaurants still stand out a bit self-consciously here.
At Wylie Dufresne's wd-50 (WD are his initials; 50, the address on Clinton Street) the mood is almost studious. The couple next to us smelled their food up close and quietly sang the ingredients to each other, lost in meaningful chant: "Pork belly . . . black soybeans . . . turnips." With complex flavor syllogisms like scallop-chorizo-panna cotta, the food cries out to be pondered, dissected—and enjoyed. Meanwhile, at Dufresne's old home, the pioneering 71 Clinton Fresh Food, chef Jason Neroni still packs this unadorned little room. The menu changes often: Nantucket Bay scallops with razor clams, vanilla, black radish, and lime; Tasmanian ocean trout tartare; pickled duck breast with Japanese turnips, pears, and pea greens. The bar is still the best place in the neighborhood to come for dinner for two without reservations.
The smallest restaurants in New York tend to be labors of love, and the East Village has some of the most lovable miniatures. Jack and Grace Lamb are the gracious owner-host-designers of a couple of such places. She's calm and beautiful; he wears nice shirts and is a frantic, loquacious, pampering presence. Their Jewel Bako opened in 2001 and does sushi, but like nobody else. The jewel box of a restaurant keeps crowds hungry for more with an unusual panoply of sea creatures—needlefish, giant clam, as many shades of tuna as you'll find west of Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market—and inventive use of the couple's collection of vintage glassware.
Quirkier and more ambitious in its way is their new venture, Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar. Built in a carriage-house duplex opposite Jewel Bako, Jack's is a dream version of a 1960s haute New Orleans oyster bar shrunk to dollhouse dimensions, with walls as brightly checked as Jack's shirts. After taking one of the 28 seats, glance around and you'll see pretty much everything on the menu: paddlefish caviar on toast points, oysters Rockefeller, the towering (and at $100, slightly overpriced) platter of raw and steamed seafood. It's a fun, funny little place: The oysters and the eavesdropping are especially good. The Lambs' East Village empire continues to grow with the more casual Jewel Bako Makimono around the corner, and the Sino-Room, set to serve Chinese food when it opens next door to Jewel Bako.
At The Tasting Room, another family affair with all of 25 seats, Colin and Renée Alevras offer a constantly changing roster of little plates to share—rich pork belly and chutney; elegant squid and littleneck clam salad; homemade sausage and eggplant. Look up to the loft to see where their impressive wine list, all of it American, is stored.
Part of the fun of eating out in the old East Village was hunting down great little spots that couldn't afford the heftier rents above 14th Street. The downside was the food wasn't always so great. Pylos gets it just right. It's small, cheap, friendly, and the food is exceptionally good. Clay jugs line the ceiling of this Greek restaurant, but the intimate soft light, pillow-lined benches, and attractive crowd at the bar could make you think this was just another overdesigned bistro. The steady parade of those small plates called mezethes erases all doubt: tart taramosalata and warm pita; wine-rich, perfect octopus; saganaki (a thick fondue made of three Greek cheeses). The first courses are the best, and with a group it doesn't take long to work your way down the list. End with Greek yogurt drizzled with sweet, syrupy cherries and walnuts—or just order more octopus and start over again.
The Mermaid Inn is a fun, grown-up seafood shack set down in the once-mean East Village streets. The nautical theme, black wainscoted walls, and the mermaid herself on the menu would be just shtick if the food weren't so good. The menu is short and strong on raw oysters, fritters, and simple fish preparations; it's accented with interesting conglomerations like spaghetti with a salad of squid, shrimp, and scallops on top, a smoky, spicy bargain at $15. The Mermaid Inn does not take reservations and has no dessert menu (you get a nice little pot of chocolate pudding as a kind of consolation prize).
Luckily there's ChikaLicious dessert bar, which addresses nothing but the sweet hereafter. Japanese pastry chef Chika Tillman and partners Donna Ryan and Don Tillman turn out a dainty little procession of sweets. Twelve dollars buys you a set course of pre-dessert, dessert, and post-dessert: an amuse of rosemary gelée with pear sorbet, for instance, followed by a sweet potato brûlée with egg nog ice cream and a small plate of petits fours. It also buys you the comfort of knowing you are surrounded by like-minded travelers happy to sit around oohing over their dried-fruit risotto (paired with a little glass of crisp botrytis semillon), making a sweet little ritual of dessert.
THE FAR EAST
You can't always tell what's what on the LES. There are bodegas and liquor stores that have been turned into bars, and there are just bodegas and liquor stores. Then there's Schiller's Liquor Bar, southeasterly outpost of the Keith McNally (Balthazar, Pastis) bistro-and-boozing empire. It's hard to miss. The outside walls are clad in what they call Subway tiles—though it looks like a giant, gleaming bathroom to me. The name in bright yellow neon serves as a kind of beacon for first-time visitors. Inside, the bar and the crowd look a lot like they do at Pastis. If McNally hasn't made a nod to the distinct spirit of the neighborhood, at least he's brought it what everyone in any neighborhood really wants: good french fries, pretty girls and boys crowded around a pewter-topped bar, and a place to idle with a hangover and a copy of Le Monde.
At 'inoteca, the bigger, bolder follow-up to the West Village's 'ino panini bar, the sandwiches are overshadowed by great little plates of vegetables; cold cuts; and specials like an excellent fried salt cod—exactly what you'd expect from a casual Italian eatery backed by the folks behind Otto and Lupa. Only one sandwich, the porchetta, stands up to the competition. Gigantic and wondrously fatty, it rises above everything else like the new Surface Hotel going up near the old matzo factory. It's an excellent energy source for exploring the neighborhood.
MAPPING OUT THE EAST VILLAGE AND BEYOND
203 East 10th Street; 212-995-9511; www.chikalicious.com
BEST THING Knowing there are others out there who want three courses of dessert at 3 p.m. TRY The wine pairings. AVOID Being the person who demands tiramisu. (It happens.)
403 East 12th Street; 646-602-1300; www.restauranthearth.com
BEST THING The promise of a top-quality restaurant in the East Village. TRY The cider doughnuts and the persimmon pudding. AVOID Sitting too close to the kitchen. Open kitchens are fun to watch, but nobody likes hearing the staff yell at one another.
98 Rivington Street; 212-614-0473
BEST THING Avoiding the dinner crowd at lunch with a porchetta sandwich and a cheap bottle of red. QUIRKY WINE CHOICE Lambrusco—bubbly, red, and good with panini. TRY The crispy fried salt cod. AVOID Eating with people who don't like to share.
JACK'S LUXURY OYSTER BAR
246 East 5th Street; 212-673-0338
BEST THING The gingham wallpaper and the rose champagne. TRY "Deconstructed" Oysters Rockefeller. AVOID Going with tall claustrophobes.
239 East 5th Street; 212-979-1012
BEST THING Great fish in a pretty little jewel box. TRY Matching sake and various sashimi. AVOID Sticking to familiar sushi choices. Let the chef lead the way.
THE MERMAID INN
96 Second Avenue; 212-674-5870; www.themermaidnyc.com
BEST THING The open-air back porch in summer. INSIDER TIP Ask if the off-the-menu fish and chips is available. TRY The lobster roll and the spaghetti with salad on top. AVOID If you've got a sweet tooth: There's no dessert menu.
54 East 1st Street; 212-677-6221
BEST THING Getting there before the rest of your party for cocktails and snacks at the tiny bar. ALTERNATIVE TO BUSY DINNER RUSH Brunch rush. TRY Shrimp toasts. AVOID Overordering. It tends to be hard to narrow your choices, so this is pretty much unavoidable.
128 East 7th Street; 212-473-0220; www.pylosrestaurant.com
BEST THING The banquette farthest from the front door, for views of the dining room and the bar. TRY The octopus appetizer. AVOID Relying on main courses.
SCHILLER'S LIQUOR BAR
131 Rivington Street; 212-260-4555
BEST THING The nonthreatening wine list, broken down not by grape but by class: Cheap, Decent, or Good. WORTHY HOUSE COCKTAIL They do a very nice Manhattan. TRY Steak frites au poivre. AVOID Dinner on the weekends. As at Balthazar and Pastis, this is amateur hour and SRO.
71 CLINTON FRESH FOOD
71 Clinton Street; 212-614-6960; www.71clintonfreshfood.com
BEST THING Dinner at the bar, without reservations. TRY The short ribs. AVOID Groups of more than four.
THE TASTING ROOM
72 East 1st Street; 212-358-7831
BEST THING The all-American wine list. TRY The homemade sausages and terrines. AVOID Private conversations.
50 Clinton Street; 212-477-2900; www.wd-50.com
BEST THING With Jean-Georges Vongerichten as a co-owner, a serious restaurant comes to Loisaida. TRY To sit in one of the more private booths. AVOID Trying to re-create these dishes (or decor) at home.