Autumn Looms; Downtown Restaurants Bloom


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Speaking of school, the eighth-grade chainsmokers who attend summer session at Marta Valle Model High School, at the corner of Norfolk and Stanton Sts., challenged us to a game of handball the other day. They beat our ass summarily and demanded a pack of Marlboro reds as victory booty. Loath to encourage bad habits, we suggested instead Italian ices at Ray's, nearby on Houston St. Ray's pizza sucks, and at night the storefront's buzzing neon lights throw our pitbull/Jack Russell puppy into paroxysms of aural terror. But they do ices okay.


It's been a few months now since the Ray's empire chased poor old Sal back to Brooklyn or Staten Island or wherever the hell he was from. Remember Sal? Think hard. Rosario's. Pizza joint. Three decades on Houston. A humble and square-deal merchant beloved of the community, and so forth. Funny how all the alt-culture posturing?all the indignation over Sal's heartless corporate eviction?is by now a distant and fading springtime memory. Curious how those same concerned aspiring filmmakers and Hampshire College graduates who shoved that boycott clipboard under our noses one February night can now be spotted softshoeing it out of Ray's back entrance on Orchard St. Hey, dickhead?yeah, you with the thick black frames and the copy of Raygun poked up your snoot. How's that slice treating you, buddy?


Just around the corner from Ray's, and just in time for the autumnal rush, come two promising new additions to the Lower East Side's improving restaurant culture?Le Pere Pinard and Rivington 99. We've visited Le Pere Pinard a whole mess of times since they opened two weeks ago. No fluke, that. Owner Fabrice has created a serviceable facsimile of a French country inn, offering a wine bar and tapas up front?okay, so it's the sort of French country inn that would fit right in near Seville, if you want to be all uncool and precise about it?and a full menu in the dining room and garden. The interior's dark wood recalls Noho's Il Buco; the ham and cheese tartinette, meanwhile, does what it's supposed to do, settling in your gut with a good, honest weight. Also: fine herbed potatoes and sausage, escargot in pesto tapenade and salmon ceviche. We imagine ourselves haunting these premises come the colder months?late afternoon, maybe, on a dark Thursday fresh from our mentoring gig, fortifying our bloodstream with a bottle of Lussac St. Emilion '95 and meditating on the melancholic quality of soft light refracting through the green glass of bottles. We've yet to order from Le Pere Pinard's dinner menu.


Rivington 99, meanwhile, is a block farther south on the corner of Rivington and Ludlow?right across the street from the dildo store, where the unforgivable Navia's fulfilled its wretched term on Earth. Here we've found good coffee, a few simple salads and sandwiches and a eurosphere redolent of Cafe Gitane's, though lacking the faux-Gallic pretension. Excellent desserts, too.


To quote one of our chainsmoking Marta Valle High School handball rivals: "Shit dog, with these new grub-ass joints poppin' up all over this bitch we be covered like a jimmy hat."


Like a jimmy hat indeed.


Monday, Sept. 27, Tribeca's Duane Park Cafe's hosting a dinner to familiarize the public with the wines of François Faiveley, who's Burgundy's largest vineyard owner. Chef Seiji Maeda will prepare five courses of food substantial enough to stand up to substantial wines: rosemary-roasted breast of pheasant with red onion tarte tatin, roasted root vegetables and red verjus glaze, for example, is third in line. The evening costs $125 per person, which includes tax and tip. Call 732-5555 for reservations.


That Danny Meyer sure is one gracious fellow. Mention the guy in an article, wait a reasonable period of time and BAM! your mailbox is aflutter with a personal note from the great restaurateur himself, thanking you oh-so-humbly for the gift of your attention?and has he mentioned that your well-aimed criticisms are being addressed by himself and his staff with the most reverent attention?


And so on. That sort of obsessive attention to small, gracious points of conduct?who else in the high-end restaurant world thanks you for criticizing his food and service??is appreciated here at Soup to Nuts. Which is why we've framed that letter and wall-mounted it alongside our autographed picture of a glowering Florence Fabricant staring down a loaf of Stilton; and why, the slightly disappointing Tabla aside, Meyer remains the city's most important restaurateur, the man to whose eateries we reflexively turn when we've something in mind to celebrate?a brother's graduation from college, perhaps, as happened recently, or else the imminent arrival on newsstands of the latest issue of Flaunt.


But did you know that Meyer's Union Square Cafe does events, too? Wednesday, Sept. 22, the restaurant's presenting a "Breakfast with Alice Waters" morning, which seems to mean that the influential Berkeley chef will materialize to shill her new Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook (Chez Panisse Cafe is the informal upstairs appendage to Waters' original Chez Panisse), answer questions, share recipes and, it seems, perform some deft cooking one-two-three with ingredients glommed from that same morning's Union Square Greenmarket. The event costs $70; each guest receives an autographed copy of the cookbook. Space is extremely limited, so call Marya Piffer at 989-3510, ext. 24, for reservations now.


And this Thursday, Sept. 16, Union Square Cafe?along with its fellow Union Square-area residents Blue Water Grill, Campagna, City Bakery, Follonico, Patria and a couple of others?will participate in the fourth annual Harvest in the Square event. What is it? A party, precisely, in a tent erected in Union Square Park's north plaza: Dishes will be offered by all of the eateries mentioned above, plus a number more. Advance tickets ($60) can be purchased through Telecharge, at 239-6200. Doors open to the general public at 7:30 p.m., and food will be served until 10. We're told some tickets will be available at the tent door that evening for $75, but why bet on it?


Meli Melo, that comfortable and inexpensive French joint in restaurant-light Murray Hill, will, between Sept. 20 and 25, celebrate its third anniversary by serving free dessert to everyone who eats dinner there. The restaurant's located at 110 Madison Ave. (betw. 29th & 30th Sts.). Reservations at 686-5551, or log on to melimelonyc.com.


Yeah, but did Jack return their credit card? Press release of the week, from midtown's fine Ben Benson's Steak House: "Recently a reservation for four at 7 p.m. turned out to be a party of four blind women (all 40-something) with a seeing-eye dog. They asked for a booth. The dog went under the table and never moved a muscle the entire time while the ladies set about to thoroughly enjoy the steakhouse buzz. Veteran waiter Jack immediately brought them a Braille menu, always on hand at Ben Benson's Steak House. Jack cut the meats (steaks and calves' liver) into cubes and put some mashed potatoes on each plate. He positioned their hands to the plate and explained the position of the foods clockwise so that they knew exactly. They paid with a credit card, asking Jack to add a gratuity, and then handed him a rubber stamp to place on the signature space. On departure, Jack took one by the arm and each held hands as Jack led them out of the restaurant, hailed a taxi, and put them inside. They were very happy and appreciative."


Ben Benson's is located in Rockefeller Center at 123 W. 52nd St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-8888.


Contributors: Andrew Baker, Andrey Slivka.


E-mail tips and comments to souptonuts@nypress.com or fax to 244-9864.


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