Two Houston St. Restaurants

Written by Andrey Slivka on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

For various
uninteresting reasons, I’ve found myself walking into restaurants in the
last few weeks in inappropriate sartorial conditions. I don’t mean anything
especially scandalous; it’s just that I’ve been a bit off.
All, like, scroungy and unshaven–sockless, wearing, like, sneakers and
shit. Because I’ll stop into the office dressed like that, and then Tim
will call and boing, presto, suddenly I’m at Joya, in Brooklyn,
amidst a group of human beings with faces and smiles and varying personalities
and handbags and jobs, and I’m holding forth on something or other, expansively,
and dicking around with my curry, but I’m scroungy as hell, see? wearing
a thermal t-shirt or the like. Ten years ago looking awful was fun, it expressed
my collegiate intellectual’s Trappist contempt for the things of this world.
But now I just get caught out–"Hey, what are you doing for dinner?"–and
I feel dumb.

I felt underdressed
(it’s mostly those sneakers of mine) when I dropped by Jane, on Houston
St., last week, one gorgeous, cool-blue early evening. This place is great,
I love it, I’ll try to go back, but it’s almost a joke, an imitation
of itself, or an imitation of what it’s supposed to be, which is an extremely
smart Soho restaurant for the moneyed hip. Get a load of this. Everyone was
6 feet tall. Everyone was blond (okay, except the black guy and the brunette
behind the bar). The portly, the thick and the bumptious were nowhere in evidence;
I suspect Jane’s staff stows them away somewhere in the back of the establishment,
someplace secret and unspeakable. It was absurd. I sat (underdressed) at the
bar, drinking gimlets on the rocks, with all sorts of (tall, blonde) women a
little bit older than I am clustered around me, and while I read David Denby’s
keen cinematic criticism in The New Yorker I’d catch a word or a
phrase out of their conversation, some bit of information would drift over the
transom of my consciousness, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t always
something like "New Canaan" or "Jitney" or "Daddy"
or "Chappy" or "at school," and I thought, good God, they’ve
created a restaurant almost exclusively for urbane Protestant broads, and named
it "Jane," and it’s a cool, blue, perfect spring day, and there
is nothing, as far as I can tell, significantly wrong with the world. (But what
else were they going to call the place? Hecubah? Beyoncé?)

What food I
ate was good. Part One was a tomato flatbread, sized for one person, served
to me on a wooden cutting board. Or they called it a flatbread, but it was more
like a strange pizza, whatever the hell it is that I mean by that, a warm thing
composed of soft, oven-browned dough, slopped with battered tomatoes, and the
oblong item had been chopped into square bits, facilitating ease of consumption,
and ohhhhhh boy, did it ever hit the spot.

I also ordered
a risotto that I recommend highly. The coarse, white rice, buttery as can be,
had been formed into a low cylinder in the midst of the huge white plate. Buttery,
buttery, buttery. I’m always shocked by how bad for you risottos are, which
you might, innocently, in your deep unworldliness and stupidity, assume would
be the relatively lighter dishes on menus. But no, they seem to ladle that butter
right on there, into the pan, onto the rice. Actually, I suspect that nothing
in a good restaurant that tastes good is good for you. Nothing, not even the
fish, not unless it’s been steamed. I don’t know–maybe the lentil
stew at Rice is good for you, but in general, restaurants are places in which
death lurks.

Atop the cylinder
was a ragout of warm vegetables, the deep colors of which pleased me, to the
point where I sat there with my face hovering over them for a while, imprinting
them on my consciousness. I’m serious. Deep purple of worried eggplant,
plum-tomato red, the whole cylinder garnished up on top by several crosswise
pieces of asparagus cooked to that crisp and chewy point at which a suspicion
of deep, oily black rises up on the flanks of the pieces–that weird phantom
point on the spectrum where deep black yields to deep green and back again.
The plate floated with a slick of buttery fluid, and the whole dish was, as
you’ve probably been suspecting, excellent.

I’m very
often on Houston St. for one reason or another, so I stopped by Jane two nights
after that, though later in the evening, around 8:30. I wanted gimlets, risotto,
plum-tomato tarts, deep green spectral intensity, some experience of downtown
cosmopolitanism, the soothing energy of which might work the kinks out of the
muscles of my back. It was no good, though, because the place was closed off
for a party, and so tall humans, a couple years older than I am, mingled and
flexed in their litheness near the bar. Black cars double-parked on Houston
St., and pressing my face against the glass and looking into the sauternes-colored
light (bodies floating graceful through winey ether), I felt like an intruder,
bathed in the secondhand glow that’s cast by someone else’s light.


talk about the mindblowing cycles that characterize life, the stunning returns.

I’m sitting, late in the evening, alone in Risa, which is that Mediterranean
restaurant that opened not too long ago on E. Houston St. above Botanica, in
what used to be the upstairs portion of the old Knitting Factory–the Botanica
space was the club’s downstairs. Anyway, I’m sitting at a table near
the front windows in Risa, having this crazy sensation of compressed temporality,
of being screwed with by whoever’s in charge of Time, of being blasted
out of the linear continuum. Spring of 1989, and in exactly the spot in which
I’m eating a pizza napoletana right now, John Zorn sat, with his little
alto saxophone, leading his band Naked City through the alternating movements
of lucid swing and brutalizing cacophony that characterized their music.

Fred Frith
on bass! And I can’t remember now, but were Bill Frisell and Joey Baron
playing guitar and drums, respectively? It doesn’t matter. I was there
with an incredibly brilliant high school friend of mine, a guy who’s one
of my intellectual role models, who recently retired from Wall St. at the age
of 28 with all the money he’ll ever need, and headed off to Southern California,
I believe Manhattan Beach, to figure out what he’s going to do next, which
will likely involve something like revolutionizing computing or winning a Nobel
Prize in physics. I remember his snickering in amused contempt at Zorn’s
sensationalistic forays into what, were I a rock critic, I’d call skronk.

you are so closed-minded," I reprimanded him then, but now I think
he was right.

Now jump to
February 1993. The Meat Puppets play an acoustic show, with bassist Cris Kirkwood
standing in precisely the spot on which I’m now consuming gemelli shot
through with all sorts of, you know, gifts of the sea: calamari and shrimp sauteed
in oil and mussels, and maybe some other stuff, I don’t remember. Anyway,
this is a gray, cold day in my collegiate years, and little Jennie climbs
up, for kicks, to sit on my other friend’s shoulders and some aging
hipster cracks, "Hey children, this isn’t Lollapalooza."

I might be
wrong, but I believe that that was the day on which the World Trade Center bombing
occurred. The day on which I spent the afternoon trapped in a mercifully uncrowded
IRT train, which had been stuck dead under 96th St. on its uptown run, and the
whole crew of us, students and geezers and workmen and quiet old Hispanic women,
wondered what was happening, wondered why we’d been relegated for an hour
to this subterranean limbo. It wasn’t until early evening that I learned
about the bombing, and knew why I’d been trapped there, and realized that
the 1/9 trains run right through the blast zone.

Risa: good,
though not great, Mediterranean cooking (but why should it be great? The place
is inexpensive, it doesn’t cost enough to be great), and at least one extremely
kind and soulful-eyed but not overwhelmingly professional waiter whom you’d
have to wrestle a glass of water out of, if you want it. And as for getting
an alcoholic beverage from the guy–forget it. You’d do better to bring
along a flask. It was about 10 p.m. on a weekday night. I was hungry, I walked
up the stairs. I sat down with my back against the comfortable red leather banquette
in this wonderfully airy establishment, whose shadowy atmosphere is swirled
by ceiling fans and warmed by the glow of candles and sconces. And I ordered
a creamless mussel and shrimp bisque worked through with saffron, and also the
aforementioned gemelli with sauteed seafood and green pieces of zucchini, and
my pizza napoletana, which means a pizza with tomatoes and mozzarella and capers
and anchovies–and I wanted a glass of water and a glass of wine,
but the kind-eyed waiter offered to bring me neither, and I’m hardly the
type to insist and demand, I’m a shy fellow, I pass through the world with
but a light step, so there I sat. Dry as a bone.

After about
20 minutes, I saw it happen. He stood by the little bar, looking about cheerfully,
when an electric shock seemed to run through him and I swear I saw a lightbulb
flame into life above his head, and he scurried behind the bar and poured a
glass of water out of a pitcher and ran right over with it, his face registering
a deep mortification.

I got some wine, too–they pour generously here–and enjoyed myself.
Great bisque (it was a special–God only knows whether they’ll have
it for you when you visit Risa), excellent pasta and okay pizza. Only okay,
because its crust was the rubbery, thick, soft crust of the typical American
slice joint, which isn’t the sort of crust I’m visiting restaurants,
even restaurants on E. Houston St. above meat-market bars like Botanica, to
eat. But still: good atmosphere, nice people, prices as reasonable as they should
be, and a great window thrown open onto Houston St.

Or rather onto
the lovely well-tended flower box, filled with petunias and marigolds or whatever
they are, that the restaurant maintains. And, for that matter, onto that fine
tree that rises out from the sidewalk in front of Botanica. I’d never even
noticed its fineness in all of these years of hanging around that block until,
from Risa’s second-story height, I looked out into the green world of its
thick new leaves, swaying in a downtown breeze.

Jane, 100 W.
Houston St. (betw. La Guardia Pl. & Thompson St.), 254-7000.
47 E. Houston St. (betw. Mulberry & Mott Sts.), 625-1712.