Mediocre!


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My old friend is a little suspicious of Agozar!, the Cuban tapas restaurant across Bowery from CBGBs. "What’s with the exclamation point?" he wants to know. "Agozar" means "have a great time," although something is lost in the translation. "It’s festive," I tell him.


Inside, it does look festive. The little front-room bar has stools with box-shaped cushions in blue, red and green. The bar itself features elegant black shelving, and the cocktail-glass supply makes it look as if the staff is expecting an army to barge in any minute, demanding mojitos. Our host and the servers he’s conversing with could pass as soap-opera actors. This shindig seems kind of happening. Then the host decides to continue his conversation instead of greeting us.


No big deal, but it’s the kind of subtle message that could effectively undercut the promise of "A Great Time!" We make it to the dining room, another narrow space, perpendicular to the bar. It has a lot less going for it–no color, no elegance. The night is so young, there are only two tables occupied, yet the host squeezes us in right between them. Now my pal and I are raising eyebrows at each other one at a time, to ask if we should be taking offense, and if we should just eat at the bar or what.


Four young women at one of the adjacent tables save the day. We’re so close to them in this mostly empty restaurant, that anywhere else in America we’d technically be at their table instead of next to it. And they’re into it. They’re four Long Island girls, definitely old friends, getting plowed on a pitcher of rum punch. When we scout their tapas, they tell us they ordered everything on the menu, clearly delighted by the excessiveness of it. Here it is, I think: an exclamatory good time.


Next comes a polite, professional and enthusiastic waitress. She should be the host’s boss. Seconds after informing us that the $5 drinks of the day are coladas, she’s back with my pińa. The drink is nothing special, just like the cocktails at every other restaurant that claims to specialize in cocktails. It counts for a lot that our server seems to be actively working to minimize Agozar’s customer-service problem. In about 20 minutes her noble effort will be eradicated.


The first of our tapas to arrive is croquetas ($9), and they look like mozzarella sticks. Inside is supposed to be ham and chorizo, but what we taste is mostly that good ol’ generic family-restaurant deep-fried flavor. It’s a shame if any chorizo is actually in there, wasted.


What’s billed as ceviche ($13) is actually shrimp in a mild tomato-pepper sauce. It’s orange and cheery like Agozar’s bar, and not a bad dish altogether, though overpriced. You wouldn’t remember it. A fake ceviche like this is much easier to prepare than the real thing, which demands control of both the slow-cooking power of lime and the sharpness of onions, and leaves a deeper impression. (Try, if you yet haven’t, the ceviche at the East Village Peruvian restaurant Lima’s Taste.)


Mar y tierra ($17) is our favorite Agozar dish. I’d bet plenty of other patrons have felt the same way–can you go wrong with surf and turf? When our server canvasses us for opinions on the food, she goes above and beyond by pitching a planned entree based on this tapas. The current version is a little lobster tail and a mini strip of sirloin grilled together on a skewer. You get three skewers on a bed of wonderfully garlicky greens.


Cerdo y maduros ($8) makes for a bountiful introduction to Cuban-style grilled pork. The chunks of loin meat are black and seriously bitter on the outside, but determined chewing reveals some evidence of moisture within. Fried plantains are better than average at Agozar. Though they turn up with several tapas, their yielding sweetness plays an especially important role alongside the rugged pork.


Masitas de pollo ($8) is solid, despite the menu’s broken promise of "almond mojo." The meat is more tender than the chicken-breast kabobs sold at street fairs, yet it’d be misleading to categorize this as a completely different dish. If the sauce carried a whiff of almond essence, or if it tasted as if fresh herbs had come within 100 yards of it, that’d be something. Mojo isn’t magic; it’s Cuba’s national sauce and absolutely not too much to ask for.


With the help of the goils, though, we’re doing okay. Then one of the face men we met at the entrance shows up with a pitcher. Apparently he’s filling in as busboy, but nobody bothered to train him in the delicate art of refilling water glasses–and he’s under the dangerous impression that he’s above the job. Write in if you’ve ever even heard of this maneuver: He comes up to my friend from behind, and seeing that this particular customer is drinking from his water glass at this particular moment, leans in, shows him the pitcher, and interrupts our conversation to demand, "May I?"


The waitress makes it sound as if Agozar’s forthcoming menu revision is going to be fairly extensive. If something can also be done about the staff’s attitude–so strikingly bizarre in an establishment with zero cache–the restaurant will deserve a second chance. What we picked up must have been the faint echoes of an orchestrated vibe. Agozar was an aspiring hotspot that flopped. Now it should just grill meat and be nice to people.


 


Agozar!, 324 Bowery (betw. Bleecker & Bond Sts.), 212-677-6773.



Ivo & Lulu


About six months ago I reviewed the Morningside Heights restaurant A, concluding that New York would be better if places like it popped up all the time. A step toward that goal was achieved with Ivo & Lulu. It’s more like A than there was reason to imagine a new restaurant could be. It’s practically the same thing.


One of the chefs from A’s early days replicated the tiny French-Caribbean-organic place downtown. The original saved money on rent by occupying a former video store near 106th & Columbus. Ivo & Lulu is at Broome and Varick, so close to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel that it’s probably hazardous to drive to the restaurant. If you end up in New Jersey, you’re even more unlikely to find a restaurant like this.


The main idea is small, intense plates, cheaply priced. All of the entrees are $10 or less. There’s no liquor license, and unlike the Columbia students who frequent A, Ivo & Lulu diners are bringing decent wines. That adds an element of anxiety to a rather casual setting, but it’s decidedly an improvement, because this food deserves to be well complemented. You can impress the hell out of a date at Ivo & Lulu. (Two warnings: Vegetarian options are very limited, and don’t overdress, because the kitchen is in the dining room, so the place gets hot.)


Both of A’s most popular dishes are on Ivo & Lulu’s menu: an appetizer of grilled organic avocado with spinach mousse and shiitake-sesame vinaigrette, and an entree of jerk duck leg confit in mango marinade. The former blends into a light, creamy, smoky compound, as if a salad of grilled vegetables somehow took the form of creme brulee. The latter is always gone before I can figure out what it tastes like.


Another starter is terrine of Scottish pheasant with truffle oil and a brie crust. No pastry is involved–the "crust" is just salty cheese baked to a gentle crisp atop the layered slices of game. Almost as rich is the entree of smoked chicken breast in goat cheese, the meat rendered impossibly supple by the tenderizing effects of papaya. Then there’s the gingery sausage made from free-range rabbit. It and all the other entrees come with a stately tower of Moroccan couscous.


Ivo & Lulu seems to pretty much be a one-man operation. When he gets a chance, the chef/proprietor heartily greets his diners. Tell him you like his cooking and he’ll say, "Spread the word!" Now that I have done so, here’s a counter-plea for Mr. Ivo & Lulu: Keep things fresh by rotating new dishes in regularly (early signs indicate that this is, in fact, his plan). Then open up some more restaurants.


Ivo & Lulu, 558 Broome St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 212-226-4399.


Kam Man


A sign on the door of Kam Man says the place is celebrating its 30th birthday. It looks as if the sign might have been there for a while, but still, there’s no better time to pay a visit to New York’s single-most non-Western grocery store. Take it from someone who made a hobby of seeking out Asian food shops in far-off Queens, hoping to find one where there’s absolutely nothing on the shelves a gringo can easily identify. Chinatown’s Kam Man is the king.


One of the store’s specialties is dried seafood. All the Chinese groceries stock some, but only Kam Man has bulk containers of all the major shellfish, a bin of whole dried abalone the size of softballs and four-foot-long dried eels, split open and pressed flat, hanging from the ceiling. Another highlight is the traditional medicine counter, which offers a broad range of high-end ginsengs and bird’s nests. Per-pound prices for those run well into the thousands of dollars. Anyone who thinks America deserves its rep for cultural imperialism should spend some time here. There is no Kam Man in Norway.


Kam Man Market, 200 Canal St. (betw. Baxter & Mulberry Sts.), 212-571-0330.


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