Cafe Lebowitz

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My friend told me to walk down Elizabeth St. south of Houston St. and I'd see this brand-new restaurant, Cafe Lebowitz. It was indeed easy to spot. There's a cheerful red awning emblazoned with the unlikely name right at the corner of Spring St., easily visible half a block away. En route we passed some trendy restaurants with tiny signs, and a couple of old industrial bakeries with no signs at all. It was getting late on a Friday evening, so the bakeries had a weekend's worth of fragrant baguettes on their loading docks. It was also very seasonable, thus a perfect moment to bust out some new spring fashions, if one were so inclined. The overdecorated hotspots like Peasant were full-to-bursting with people who are.

It was clear before we'd even crossed the Lebowitz threshold that the place already belongs here, and that we'd belong inside. It's a moderately priced bistro with interesting Continental fare. Nothing intrepid, except maybe the range?from Hungarian goulash with noodles to croque monsieur, and percatelli pesto to borscht. The way the place occupies its place in the grid is quietly perfect. The bright awning punctuates a key Nolita intersection, which previously bled into the Bowery borderlands. One side of the bistro is windowed onto Elizabeth St., so the column of tables for two there gets mild breezes and prime people-watching.

Opposite the windows is the bar (Stella, Bass, Pilsner Urquell and Hoegaarden on tap, no liquor) and a pair of booths. Their luxuriant cushions are also red, but the dominant color inside is dark brown, woody like pipe smoke. Old mirrors are the decorations. The floor is tiled with off-white little bathroom hexagons, just like at Odeon. The chairs don't all match. There's only about 30 of them, so smoking is allowed. Cool little ashtrays call attention to the salt and pepper shakers. They look like bistro standards until you notice the cobalt blue glass layered with the stainless steel. The restaurant is kept candlelight-dim at night, and rock and rap play on the system, but you can see and hear okay. Diners and cooks catch glimpses of one another in action through a wide opening in the back wall.

It's unlikely the place will remain as pleasant as it was that early May weekend, when anyone could saunter in and sit down. But unless it gets stupidly popular, the room can be counted an asset to the neighborhood for the duration of Nolita's hotness, and beyond. Even if the dedicated followers' taste somehow happens to coincide with Lebowitz's refined simplicity, there will still be weekday breakfasts. The bistro is doing eggs-any-style every morning.

During our first visit, I guessed the bistro was owned by a first-time restaurateur. My artichoke appetizer ($7) was only doused with good vinegar and filled in at the core with lemony mayo. The way the menu didn't mention mayo, and my powerful preference for mustard with a vinaigrette, reminded me of European tourist joints. A seared tuna salad with grape tomatoes, olives and grilled bread ($7.75) was more impressive. Paprika on the fish where most would've used pepper inspired faith in the chef. He looked pretty young.

Jane literally watched his back while I stole glimpses at a couple of men a few tables away. They were dressed casually elegant and appeared older than everyone else in the house. One of them commanded a lot of attention. But he didn't look like a Lebowitz?he looked Irish. The plot thickened when the chef, who also had a British-Isles-style shrub of hair, perched at his ledge, caught Jane's eye and mouthed an interrogative sentence to her. (Hours later, she decided it was, "Do you want a job?" She's casually elegant too, you see.) Just then, the older gent pushed what he was eating aside and arranged for the chef to spend a moment with him at his table.

My entree, grilled fish, was delicious. It was a fresh fillet of snapper with flavors from grill smoke and fresh herbs, juicy and spotted with char. At $12.50 it was almost my dream dish. (I've been haunted since a trip to Israel and Turkey by memories of great grilled fish, effortlessly acquired at any hour.) One side, buttery red potatoes, was fine. The other, green beans, tasted like they'd been soaked overnight in New Jersey tap water. I chose to interpret this as a counterindication of Lebowitz's future performance?the sort of execution wrinkle an able staff routinely irons out. "This wouldn't have happened at all," I told Jane, "if you were working here."

She'd demurred when I suggested she try the steak frites ($17.50), opting instead for one of the menu's timelessly classy sandwiches. All of them come served on a petite cutting board with two kinds of homemade coleslaw. One, with caraway seeds and the same kosher-pickle-ish vinegar from my artichoke, is the most enjoyable slaw I ever had; the other's not bad either. A few of the sandwiches come on excellent brioche. Jane's herring, apple, red onion and horseradish, though, comes on Dutch black bread. The little fishes were firm and proud, if not quite as wondrous as what I covered a few weeks ago, writing about the otherwise disappointing NL. The fruit slices, hearty bread and sharp onion made for excellent support, like household items in a still-life. The horseradish was subdued if included at all, which makes sense because the sandwich was colorful enough.

Over a slice of apple strudel with light, delicate phyllo ($5.50), we decided that the Lebowitz situation demanded more research. The restaurant seemed to be very deliberately trying to succeed as a sort of establishment that doesn't really exist in New York. If I stayed resolute, and refused to ask our waiter who owned the place, I might have figured it out. It seemed only an inexperienced New York restaurateur would attempt a low-key, reputable neighborhood bistro. But the level of assurance at Lebowitz is off the map?I mean, what's with that name? My best guess was that the owner previously ran reliable restaurants in intermittently chic European districts.

The answer is: McNally. Specifically Brian, the older cofounder of Odeon, less associated than Keith with Pravda, Balthazar and Pastis. Brian McNally's hot restaurant is Smith, and it seems it's enough so that he felt he could risk launching Lebowitz without a press release. The name was a typically crotchety suggestion from the writer Fran Lebowitz. Nothing I liked about the place, it turns out, is clumsy or serendipitous. Could it be that the smart move right now, as restaurant owners see it, is to serve middle-income regulars, be a warm host and keep things comfortable without attracting too shallow a crowd? The Frank spinoff Lil' Frankie's Pizza lends support for this theory, but after so many years of precious destination spots yipping from all corners like lapdogs, it seems too radical?and too good?to be true.

We returned with friends to Lebowitz the very next night, a Saturday. Found incremental improvements and still no crowd. Our foursome had a lot of fun in one of the booths, with a bottle of Esperto Pinot Grigio ($26), which was summery and refreshing, though oddly non-dry. (I considered a third visit the next day, Sunday, because no one had yet ordered the goulash or wiener schnitzel with lemon and parsley. But it was Mother's Day?a poor day for goulash, I surmised.)

Second-round appetizers included the smoked trout frisee ($7) with lardons, red potatoes and horseradish?which again seemed to be missing, though it didn't hurt the dish in this case, either. The trout was juicy, exquisite, while the lardons provided multiplicitous spice and crunch. A salad of fennel, orange, feta and watercress ($6.50) was an even more compelling melange of flavorful ingredients. Like four jamming musicians, they added up to something else entirely. The same can't be said for the taboule crudite ($6), which nonetheless satisfied with its vegetable samples, especially of that fennel. Some pita for scooping taboule would have been nice. (In keeping with cafe tradition, there's no table bread at Cafe Lebowitz.)

Either the borscht ($5) or the soup du jour, an asparagus puree ($5), could be perceived as a signature dish. In both cases the vegetables' own flavors were allowed to stand for themselves, authoritatively seasoned yet unbowed, and presented in a way that conveys understated pride. The mere use of spearing asparagus and bloody beet as means for holding down a starter menu suggests confidence, a worldly attitude and a level of class perpendicular to the ones people are born into.

Linguini with clams and cockles ($11.50) featured a number of nice touches, including those tasty cockles, which most menus would've called baby clams. The pasta had been sauteed with the mollusks, and everything came out with a thick coating of salty broth, speckled with greenmarket parsley. No garlic-strewn pool of oil at the bottom of the bowl here?vigorous skilleting yielded what Lebowitz doesn't bother to claim: white clam sauce.

Raclette potatoes and garnish ($9) found new-restaurant unsteadiness rearing its ugly head one more time. We expected potatoes and cheese from the stove, almost like a fondue. But instead of serving the dish with its bubbly dairy skin, the chef finished his raclette in the oven for far too long, so the cheese baked dry. So did the potatoes, actually. The dish was bad enough that there should have been an apology. Even if it improves dramatically, the raclette should probably be listed as a side instead of an entree. Vegetarians take note.

And carnivores, consider the steak tartare with frites ($14) if you usually wouldn't. It seems to be the Lebowitz chef's game. There's some fresh garlic and more of that worcestershire going into the meat along with the raw egg, yet the finished product is many miles from off-putting. Taste it with the provided chopped onions, chopped pickle and chopped capers one time each, pause for a frite and see if you aren't instantly ready to run the gamut again. I was surprised that the fries had been fried only once (double-frying is the reason for the savagely addictive crispness of New York bistro fries from Pastis to Chez Oskar), but they're fine. Shrugging at trends is better than fine.

It doesn't take the best meal one has eaten all year to awaken one to possibilities?in food, in business and in lifestyle?that one had considered dead, or not at all. I'm not going to recommend Cafe Lebowitz to everybody, but I'm happy to say I have a relationship with the place. It developed with natural ease, because the restaurant has personality, and so do I, and we have things in common. Notions of dessert aren't among them. I'm not a fan of cheesecake, and Lebowitz lends its name to theirs ($5.50). Yet I'll be back, probably next time I'm in the neighborhood, to try the schnitzel. And the time after that, as well, if the schnitzel's any good.

Cafe Lebowitz, 14 Spring St. (Elizabeth St.), 219-2399.

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