161 E. Houston St.
The space has been converted
into a nice little Mediterranean/Basque restaurant called Oliva. The place seems
to be filled with Europeans, who, despite what’s always said about them
in New York, really have relatively little to apologize for, and with a smiling
young staff that shows signs of understanding the other secret of good
service, which is that sometimes you want to be left alone. That’s quite
a trick to pull off in a little downtown bistro the economic viability of which
depends on rapid turnover. And yet these people don’t pressure you.
On the other hand, the place
is close. You share elbows, ashtrays and conversations with the girls to your
right; and with the young Italian mother, her elegantly older husband and her
several children to your left. (Yes, you share conversations and ashtrays with
the toddlers, too. This is New York and besides, like I said, there are a lot
of Europeans here. I bummed a Gauloise off a three-year-old who discussed Manu
Chao recordings with me with a certain weary nonchalance until my companion
returned from the bathroom.) A pleasant lime-green light refines the air of
the place, and milk-white hanging bulbs hum with a buttermilky luminescence.
Votive candles on the table. Et cetera. I seem to remember a techno thumpa
thumpa thumpa permeating the milky limelight, but not well enough to swear
to it, which means not well enough to either sanction it or condemn it. The
clientele appears as if it feels at home, and as if it’s proud of having
been made privy to a fine secret. That’s an okay way for a clientele to
I love describing food.
So what did we eat? Crab bisque with Armagnac was a dish I think you’ll
enjoy, and therefore I recommend it. The splash of brandy with which the soup
had been prepared asserted itself with all the virile, essential, country-Gallic
insinuations of which the northern French terroir is–like a Bordelaise
drunk cackling over his petanque–on good days eminently capable. Yak, yak,
yak. The soup was a smooth, creamy, jovial, restrained pleasure.
Here’s another appetizer
sure to please the palates of local gourmands–I mean, of course, the garlic
shrimp "a la plancha." That is, shrimp on a wooden board. And the
menu didn’t lie. The sizable shrimp were served on a wooden board, all
right, just as we’d hoped–and man, if the name "garlic shrimp"
wasn’t a good example of truth in advertising, then I’m Stonewall
Jackson. The shrimp were garlicky, all right. Eating the dish, my friend and
I kept smiling at each other and nodding our heads in satisfaction and flashing
thumbs-up signs, enthused by just how garlicky they were.
A bowl of mussels steamed
in white wine, tomato and garlic, accompanied by lemon, was better than the
usual specimen of this bistro standard. It seemed as if all the flavors that
define this sometimes bland and run-of-the-mill dish had been amped up; intensified,
somewhat. The white wine was winier; the tomato, tomatoeyer; the garlic, more
garlicky. This being a Mediterranean/
Basque restaurant, garlic is, as you might have divined by now, much in evidence.
The garlic clove is one of the institutions of the Basque kitchen, as is the
red pepper and the Bayonne ham.
We ate entrees. The roasted
monkfish, accompanied by cepes, garlic confit, Yukon potatoes and green beans,
was excellent. The filet mignon, grilled duck, Atlantic scallops and chicken
piperrada are probably all satisfying dishes, too, but we didn’t try them.
We did, however, try the "Txangurro"–which is to say, a stuffed
crab. It represented the meal’s only disappointment, not least because
it looked so homely, consisting of a big, gnarly crab shell, stuffed with chunks
of crab mixed up hardcore-style with nuggets of potato, the whole slop seasoned
with tarragon and a touch of Cognac. It wasn’t a bad dish, but it wasn’t
worth its $16, primarily because the kitchen was a little stingy with the crab,
and, conversely, too profligate with the potato. The dish is in truth worth
approximately $9.50, I say, and it’s possible you might be able to haggle
the waiter down.
When you eat here, make
sure you order a side order of snap peas. A couple dozen of the little green
fellows, incredibly fresh and salted and touched with garlic, come warm in a
wooden bowl, bathed in a wash of clear, warm water. They’re extremely good.
As for desserts, we appreciated
the warm apple tart and the raspberry sorbet. The sorbet was accompanied by
a bright green slice of marinated pear, which undulated at the side of the plate,
like a chubby ward heeler in a St. Patrick’s Day rig, slathered in a thin
layer of emerald-colored mint jelly, reminding me of something I might have
watched Episcopalians and the occasional "acceptable" Jewish family
eat when I worked in high school at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, though this
dish will also likely appeal to Irishmen. The vanilla bean flan with black cherry
confiture sounds like it excels as a dessert, and in retrospect I can’t
figure out why I didn’t order it.
So, Oliva. Cheap (entrees
are in the $16-$17 range), low-key (everyone’s the same age as you are,
and dressed exactly as you are during these eternal and unending casual Fridays
that constitute our lives) and situated–like the old bar that preceded
it–smack on top of the F train entrance, which means that you can pirouette
out of Oliva and huck up your marinated jellied pear right down into that most
convenient of holes, taking care not to tag any innocuous old women commuting
in from Windsor Terrace.