169 8th Ave.
(at 19th St.)
“We’re fully booked,” the girl up front said when my friend and I asked for a table. Never mind that the dining room was half empty. “Have a cocktail,” she offered, steering us to the bar. “After all, that’s what it’s all about.”
So it is at Ate Ave, which recently opened on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street in the heart of Chelsea. Self-consciously trendy and designed for cruising, Ate Ave feels more like a late-’90s gay bar than the New American restaurant it purports to be. As for the booze, the hostess was actually right, though not in the way she intended. After enduring the restaurant’s jarring atmosphere, mediocre food and slow service, you’ll definitely feel like drinking.
Design-wise, Ate Ave seems to be gunning for cutting-edge chic: the type of place Anthony Marentino would have taken Charlotte York to ogle men and dispense relationship advice. The front room is admittedly well arranged, with a long bar on one side and a row of cushions on the other—two opposing zones from which to launch pick-up operations. But on closer inspection, the materials—the legs of the stools, the countertops, the fabrics—appear cheap.
The main dining room, meanwhile, is a jarring and inexplicable juxtaposition of opposing styles, a Home & Garden version of an US Weekly fashion “don’t.” One wall is composed of thick bricks of glass; another, white contoured mosaic cubes, like a monochromatic game of Tetris. Abstract oil paintings of indeterminate provenance hang on the walls, and dark, theatrical hotel room curtains frame the windows at the back.
The menu is similarly overwrought. Some of the descriptions of dishes are almost comical in their transparent attempts at sophistication. The halibut comes with a “Vermont maple glaze”; the salmon is “cedar wrapped” and “ocean grown”; and the mashed potatoes come with—drum roll—“cream, butter, salt and pepper.” Maybe it’s the charged atmosphere, but other descriptions seemed laden with sexual innuendo: a side of “dirty fries with the skin on;” a sandwich described as the “AVE 3X” (for XXX?); and a baked potato “rubbed and rolled” in oil and salt. Hot.
My friend and I started with the chicken wings ($10). The portion was generous, but the wings were grilled and flash-fried in a sauce so spicy that the blue cheese dip reminded me of the spray foam used to extinguish tarmac fires. As a main, the sirloin burger ($14) was disappointing. The ground beef was spongy, like biting into a trampoline, and the bun was, astoundingly, both stiff and soggy. The accompanying “dirty fries” were crispy but would have benefited from a thicker cut.
And the halibut ($21), with pickled beets and field greens, was poorly prepared and falsely advertised. The fish was overcooked and chewy, and it was positioned on one end of a long rectangular plate, as if it had wriggled upstsream to spawn. The “field greens” turned out to be a hunk of iceberg lettuce, and the lemon was inexplicably caramelized. The only pleasant surprise on the menu was a starter of mac & cheese ($6). Sculpted into a rectangular block and deep fried, it was flavorful and surprisingly light.
The shortcomings of the menu might be forgivable if the prices weren’t so outrageous. It seems like only yesterday that gastronomes were lamenting $30 entrees at the city’s finest restaurants. But Ate Ave, which doesn’t even aspire to fine dining, has a couple of entrées in this range and a number of others in the twenties. As the economy weakens, who’s going to pay for this stuff? For the moment, however, Ate Ave may suffice for its target crowd. As my friend and I gathered our things, I overheard a neighbor say: “I want to dance!”