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Dining Districts

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If Robert Moses had gotten his way, there’d be a street as busy and broad as 14th and 23rd Sts. running through Washington Square Park. And it’s a testament to the vitality of New York’s culinary life there’d probably be some good new restaurants popping up along that boulevard. Our local restaurant strategists adapt like hardy organisms in a changing environment. This tumultuous season, the action is in mixed-use areas. The master builder’s thwarted effort notwithstanding, there’s plenty of heavily trafficked, low-rent space to work with along downtown’s widest thoroughfares.

Two years ago, you’d only encounter a place like Kloe on a tree-lined block, among the classiest of neighbors. Instead, find this Platonically ideal little bar/cafe on what was until recently the least cool block of W. 14th St. Kloe’s back area is unusually cozy for a restaurant bar, with a feel that’s half trendy spot, half commuter’s pub. The dining area comes off as equally convivial and unpretentious. My party found it funny the way our waiter kept saying "enjoy" instead of "have" (as in, "Will everybody be enjoying the wine tonight?"), but the guy chuckled right along with us.

Another rather current feature of the restaurant is its price structure. Some appetizers are set a few dollars up from the norm so that entree prices could be inched down, and the menu as a whole looks more reasonable when you scan it. Clever, but don’t try to outsmart Kloe by skipping starters. Citrus-poached jumbo shrimp satisfied my recurrent craving for absolutely perfect shellfish better than any dish I’ve had all year. The fruit flavor was just a sweet kiss rounding out pure seafood sensation. They’re worth the $9 price tag even without crunchy haricots verts and plump white beans.

Steamed Prince Edward Island mussels in a classic herb and garlic Pernod broth ($9) is another grade-A shellfish bargain. But it’s the plate with two preparations of salmon–seared and smoked, arranged in a petite "stack" with chive mousse and potato crisps ($7.50)–that makes for Kloe’s greatest bar-snack-cum-appetizer. The lox is comparable to the house-smoked variety served in the pubs of Northern England, and the seared fish, too, imparts a double taste–of the noble fish in the raw plus a guided touch of fire.

Salad Nicoise ($15.95) brought yet more seafood delights: peppered tuna rare enough to impart a bit of a sushi buzz and decently fat anchovies to help season the string beans, egg, olives and potato. A cook can hardly go wrong with these ingredients, and Kloe’s has the confidence to put them in tried-and-true settings, which neatly overrides the risk of becoming mundane. Good workaday flavors are the blessings these times demand.

In that vein, I’m going to limit comment on Kloe’s main courses to its steak frites–one of the most expensive options at $22. The fries are the size and shape American fried potatoes are supposed to take: just like McDonald’s. The herb and vinegar on them is mild with some bite–very springtime-in-Manhattan–and the portion is enough to impress any tourist wandering in off 14th St. The meat? New York strip, 10 ounces, grilled by someone who understands both the meaning and the finer implications of the words "medium rare." This is where we’re at, food-wise, during the worst economy in decades. Not even a tiny bit bad, and not even in the neighborhood.

I look forward to seeing developments similar to Kloe on 23rd St., which for the past several years has been the city’s weirdest zoning anomaly. The Flatiron fine-dining district stops absurdly short at E. 23rd, as if to parody the landmark’s narrowness. On the west side, it’s different. Chelsea’s upscale scene has long since spilled over onto the express route, so you can get a preview of what sorts of things are likely to come, eventually, between 11 Madison and Union Pacific.

Negril, on the Chelsea side, is the sort of highly praised and popular restaurant it makes sense to doubt. The prices are too high ($19.50 for a shrimp roti) and the scene at the long, busy bar is self-consciously bougie–the kind of thing Spike Lee mocked, back when he could laugh at himself. The old reviews the restaurant posts should be dismissed, because too many bland, ostentatious Caribbean restaurants were promoted by New York critics in years past. Negril’s namesake, after all, is a tourist town.

Yet the restaurant really is pretty good. And the prices are fair if you order takeout–it’s the biggest price disparity between a restaurant’s two menus I’ve ever seen ($12.50 for the same shrimp roti, for example). The room and service are undistinguished (15% tips are included on every check), so skipping them is no loss. Appetizers–including par-for-the-course ackee and saltfish ($10.50) and "Calypso Shrimp" ($13.95) that compare to Kloe’s shrimp starter about as well as Jamaica, Queens compares to Jamaica, West Indies–are also weak. But Negril’s entrees are so tasty, I’m wondering if the most cost-efficient way to eat them as often as I’d like to might be to rent a second place within delivery range.

The curry sauce in that roti is a rich, dark yellow, with flavor complex enough to expand your mind and a burn that seems to stoke itself when you’re not looking. With tender goat instead of shrimp, the dish is just as good–and $3 cheaper. Most impressive is Negril’s jerk chicken ($15.50 or $7.95 takeout). Order the white-meat version, and what shows up is a single breast the size of a porterhouse. Who knows where they get it, though a better question might be why, because big pieces of chicken are exceptionally difficult to grill. It takes forever to cook even a regular-sized chicken breast through, so the chances of ending up with medium char on the outside and juicy meat inside are slim.

Negril’s kitchen houses a true master. The inside of my massive breast wasn’t only juicy, it actually tasted of ginger and garlic from a pre-grilling rub. The jerk sauce that ran in the singed crevices of the well-handled meat evidenced the same expert hand. The tough part of a jerk sauce is blending the nutmeg and cinnamon so that they’re neither overwhelmed nor assertive, and at Negril those flavors sing the exact-right harmonic note. This sauce tastes like it could go on French toast–until the burn sets in.

Another must-have at Negril (and the only good reason not to opt for takeout) are the special rum drinks. The bar uses Jamaican overproof and, in many cases, fresh ingredients. Try the dark and stormy ($8.50), made with homemade ginger beer.

243 W. 14th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 12-255-5563.

362 W. 23rd St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 212-807-6411.

Rice to Retches

Rice pudding: the new ice cream. The idea is so stupid you can almost imagine a million-dollar marketing effort making it work. The pet rock worked. Serving every Corona with a slice of lime worked. And what about those pants with clear plastic on the ass–or was that just a stupid movie?

Anything goes when bread is out of style and the toy of the year is a more primitive variation on the yo-yo. Everything’s about marketing, dude! Then summer arrives, and with it dawns awareness of a big problem. You’re competing with ice cream. You’re serving rice pudding.

A couple of the more pliant media outlets have paid lip service to Rice to Riches–the gleaming result of an insane fever dream of an entrepreneurial plot, cooked up by some rich guy. The room suggests a Martian colony’s premier pachinko parlor, as imagined by some rich guy. The product looks like wallpaper paste. The dippy poetic naming strategy, at least, is brilliant: Your serving of neon joint compound can be topped with "Mischief" or "Heaven." I mean, it was brilliant when J. Crew came up with it for their mail-order catalog 20 years ago.

The one smart move was charging $4.50 per "Solo" portion, which, along with the Buck Rogers decor, attracted the trendoids as effectively as a velvet rope. But I’m going on record saying–risky as it is to ever do so–that people just aren’t dumb enough for this particular rich guy’s crazy scheme to work. He plans on opening five more Rice to Riches parlors within three years. I wish the guy the best of luck, even though his chocolate-cherry goop is a thunderously sorry excuse for a chocolate dessert (imagine generic-brand, artificially flavored ice cream, only warm and sort of lumpy). It’s great to know that business plans that hinge on the outlandish forecasting of future developments didn’t go out with the internet gold rush.

Ciao Bella is right around the corner, so it’ll probably be the first to be trampled under the merciless march of progress. Shortly after Rice to Riches drives Häagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s out of business, look for rice cakes to become the new pizza. Guess who’ll be in on the ground floor? Yeah, they laughed at the guy who thought of putting pantyhose in plastic eggs and selling them in supermarkets, too, but look at him now, ice cream lovers!

Will you be laughing when the musical truck idles down your street, and your grandchildren are chasing it, shouting with glee, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for rice pudding"?

Rice to Riches
37 Spring St. (betw. Mott and Mulberry Sts.), 212-274-0008.




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