I strolled My reflexive Then I saw It turns out Instead of It was early, We started Any working Malpeques went I wonder if Kumamotos I’ve Bongo also Smoked scallop The whole salad The point is Bongo, 299
through the West Chelsea gallery district, on my way to Bongo, with no intention
of actually seeing art. But I did. It was billboard art. Maybe the same people
who did those former porn marquees in transitional Times Square made this one.
It’s posted on that remnant of an elevated train track you see when looking
Hudson-ward from 10th Ave. in the W. 20s. Most of the blocks have ads on the
overpass for blockbuster movies that have already closed, but this arty one
is a real sign of the times. All it says is, "Don’t Hate What You
first response was "whatever." I was going to eat oysters, though
I prefer sushi, but I like oysters just fine. What does hate have to do with
preference? I figured the sign, being a public installation disguised as advertising,
had something to do with art and consumer capitalism. Could the signmaker have
been needling artists? Surely they prefer a competitive art market to a state
monopoly or an aristocratic patronage system, yet no one despises capitalism
as fervently as your creative, sensitive types. They’re just not considering
the likely alternatives to current order. The way your average New Yorker felt
about strong local leadership before 9/11 could be another example. During the
aftermath, the man-on-the-street view of Giuliani involved simultaneously hating
and preferring him. The billboard gives sound advice–such a position is
not tenable. The more I thought about the slogan, the more I liked it.
another sign I liked: "Punjabi Food Junction." That’s such a
good name for a taxi-stand curry-buffet cafeteria, it’s staggering. Taxi
stands are food junctions. They’re crossroads where drivers meet to dine.
The Punjab is a junction of the subcontinent, where the flavors of India and
Pakistan run together across fertile plains. (Please God don’t let it or
Kashmir be nuked.)
Bongo is next door to Punjabi Food Junction, but, being a cool place, it doesn’t
have much of a sign. I read the rave review of its furniture from an old issue
of Paper posted in the window. The place had magazine decor. Unlike Punjabi
Food Junction, Bongo is a gallery-district place, and unlike my billboardmaker,
most of the people who habituate those environs are not writers. Visual artists’
sense of fashion and designed exclusivity tends to strike me as the most offensive
of all bulwarks against group insecurity. Maybe that’s just because I don’t
have much of an eye.
entering Bongo, I checked out the chafing dishes over at P.F.J. The offerings
looked above standard. Back at Bongo’s window gallery of laminated review
clippings from its first year, 1999, I learned that Eric Asimov loved the ’sters.
He and everyone else mentioned Eames chairs as if they recognized them without
help from a press release. I went in and sat on a barstool instead.
so Bongo was almost empty. I have no idea if it remained a fashionable place,
though it’s very easy to imagine filled with regulars after hours–lolling
on the sleek, space-age couches and Eames chairs, drinking mixed cocktails from
the same bright retro palette. When my date arrived we relocated to an azure
sofa in front of a kidney-shaped coffee table. Comfortable enough. We noted
signed paintings on the walls. The server/bartender/shucker was playing Saturday
Night Fever, which was fine, and she was nice, which was a relief. I realized
I enjoy scenester places without the scenes, which caused the whole hate/prefer
thing to gnaw at me a bit.
with a dozen assorted oysters and a bottle of Saint Laurent muscadet, which
Bongo’s handbook-like menu recommends highly. I agree that the young white
(Bongo had recently updated its stock from vintage ’99 to ’00) goes
great with brine. And Saint-Laurent’s proved the liveliest muscadet I’ve
ever had. I grant the restaurant style points for noting, also on the menu,
that beer is just about as perfect a complement. It’s the prudent choice
at Bongo, because the markup on the muscadet ($28 for a bottle that retails
for $8.99) is beyond the 300-percent-of-wholesale norm. The menu’s friendly
suggestion that the muscadet is the best thing to drink with oysters (or was
it the Eames chairs?) eclipsed my sense of thrift, so the place gets Jedi Mind
Trick points as well.
artist will tell you that customers pay for more than raw materials. So it’s
fitting that Bongo’s main attractions are literally raw. A rotating stock
of about 20 different kinds of oysters makes the place, I’m sure, exciting
for regulars. There are detailed descriptions of all the types on the menu,
as well as a sampler dozen ($24-$30) for tasting all the species on hand. The
menu said there’d be six, but it seems during the week the magic number
is four. On the evening of our visit there were two Atlantic kinds–Malpeques
and Wallace Bays, and two Pacific–Kumamotos and Pearl Points.
first because they’re most familiar, hence easiest to judge. The following
was our judgment: "Yes!" Their Canadian neighbors from Wallace Bay
were similar but more mellow and a little softer. The Malpeques needed no accompaniment–lemon
only intruded upon their oceanic balance. No wonder a tradition of mollusk chauvinism
grew up around these sea-borne orbs from Prince Edward Isle. At peak freshness,
they provide a vicarious flash of life in the underwater beds, happy as clams,
only much more adept at siphoning pearly minerals out from the churning universe.
It took me years to develop a taste for oysters, and in this I’m sure I’m
not unusual. My taste edged a step toward oystermania with Bongo’s Malpeques,
which felt as delicious as they tasted.
it makes sense to compare oysters to jazz. Both were everyday, urban pleasures
for the everyman that, because of scarcity, came to instead occupy a completely
different space in American culture–a rarefied connoisseur’s realm,
tainted by European pretension. It’s a shame, but one must be honest about
the likely alternatives. In any case, the West Coast oysters reminded me of
West Coast swing. Which is to say: supposedly important, arousing a certain
curiosity, but in the end leaving an impression that perhaps one needn’t
had before, and Bongo’s were as good as the specimens I sampled from a
top-tier California raw bar one time. They’re tiny and precious, with flavor
a tad sweet, reminiscent of clam, which isn’t what I look for in an oyster.
Pearl Point is another Japanese variety. The menu explains that some were planted
in Netart’s Bay, OR, where they’re harvested via scuba. I’d judge
them worth the effort. Powerfully briny, with a bullwhipping salt aftertaste,
my Pearl Points made me admit I have a lot yet to learn about Pacific oysters.
Mingus was from Arizona, you know.
serves clams on the halfshell and shrimp cocktails. Then there’re sandwiches
of lobster salad or crabcake, soup of the day, some smoked seafood salads and
a smoked platter and that’s about it. Our sensuously saline dozen did enough
whetting for five appetites, so the lobster roll ($17) was a must. My first
of the season, it satisfied, even though I capped last autumn with Mary’s
Fish Camp’s preeminent version. Bongo’s lobster roll is chopped a
little finer, and it comes with homemade slaw instead of fries, but it’s
comparably overflowing with choice meat, seasoned but not bulked, in a buttered
toasted hotdog bun. My only caveat is that if you come to Bongo for the lobster
roll, you might want to sit at the bar, because it’s a little unwieldy
for the coffee table scenario. We nearly lost a chunk of claw.
salad ($10.50) featured mesclun greens with a honey-vinaigrette similar to what
lubricated the slaw. The scallops, smoked golden brown, sat on thin slices of
toasted baguette. Bongo buys from a small smokehouse in Connecticut, we were
told. In true backyard New England style, its operator is not shy with the smoke.
The scallops’ subtle flavor was overwhelmed, but that was fine, as their
consistency helped convey a rather amiable air of smolder. Our server mentioned
that these smoked scallops remind her of Gouda cheese. My date had a memory-flash
of ballpark hotdog. Life could be worse.
contained only three smoked scallops, which made them feel more delicate than
they really were. Such legerdemain is in some demand, and not always without
good reason, I must admit. After polishing off our refreshing muscadet, I asked
about desserts, and our hostess said Bongo doesn’t serve any, and it’s
seldom that any are asked for. Huh. I pondered the possibility of an old-fashioned
Hudsonside oyster bar. There’s a good chance I’ll live to see the
harbor clean enough for the restocking of the Staten Island beds. But would
anyone really build a ramshackle place with a hardwood floor, one beer tap,
raw onions for bar snacks and Malpeques for coins apiece? Would anyone but 78
rpm jazz aficionados want to go if they did?
that it’s not about to happen. It’s a long wait for a table at Mary’s
Fish Camp or Pearl Oyster Bar, and the oysters and service are better at Bongo
than at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. When it comes to matters of atmosphere,
value and nonculinary taste, Bongo and I exist on different planes. The restaurant
and I have one single point of intersection: their exquisite foods. Call it
a food junction. I feel as if the stylish restaurant is a nest I dropped into
out of the sky, flightless, catapulted by hunger. And I was well taken care
of. But my appetite isn’t avian, and neither is my plumage or my priorities.
Of course the shellfish is enough reason to prefer that Bongo still be there
the next time I’m hurtling headlong through West Chelsea. I can’t
even rule out the possibility I’ll be in a fabulous mood, fresh from an
opening, wanting nothing more than to be seen. I sort of hope not, but I can’t
hate on it.
10th Ave. (betw. 27th & 28th Sts.), 947-3654.
Then I saw
It turns out
It was early,
I wonder if
The whole salad
The point is
I went back Cafe Lebowitz,
to Cafe Lebowitz between when I wrote about it and when the piece was published,
two weeks ago in this space. During the interim the restaurant got, I believe,
only one other significant mention in print: a one-paragraph blurb in New
York magazine. I guess owner Brian McNally, who helped invent the fashionable
restaurant as we know it, anticipated this, but I was amazed to see the place
suddenly packed with trendy, yipping pups. I wouldn’t have been shocked
if we only had to wait for a table. It was the size of the groups of people
in their 20s, and the haircuts on the boys, that jarred me. I didn’t know
that the same type of guy who five years ago moved here and tried to escape
from style-challenged dorkdom by way of a goatee, sideburns and Paper
now spends four times as much on cruelly absurd salon inventions–asymmetrical
bobs and Justin Timberlake mousse spikes–and New York. Is this really
with whom I’m going to share space while enjoying the comfortably refined
fare of Lebowitz? It’s good for a laugh, but like Bartleby I would prefer
14 Spring St. (Elizabeth St.), 219-2399.
I went back