Mediocre!

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


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 piña. 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.

..