Soho's Crazy Dosa; An Empty Tribeca Lounge
Everybody's coming from leagues around to eat the crazy stuffed dosas at the new Hampton Chutney Co. location, in Eastern Soho.
Dosa's this stuff that sounds unlikely, and even?depending on your subconscious equipment?nasty. According to the information printed at the top of the Hampton Chutney menu: "DOSA: Light, crispy, sour-dough crepe made from rice." Rice batter's a turnoff for me. The sight of it stimulates deep within me an amorphous distaste, a mild revulsion. Batter's supposed to be smooth, a supple compound of flour, sifted confectioner's sugar and so on, whipped into consistency by my mommy's whisk, softened with milk and eggs, while the kitchen radio whispers Brahms on a snug Christmasy day sometime back during Mr. Ford's administration. But when you think of rice batter, you think light-brown and runny, and textured with bits, morsels, nuggets, specks, niblets and chunks. You're confronted with motifs straight out of some moist, psychically buried infant anal-expulsive episode, one of those secret repressed filthy memories on which, for all you know, a significant percentage of your personality's been constructed, and that will slush about in the bilge of your mental apparatus, all putrid and evil, most likely until the day, my friend, on which you drop dead.
That said, the crepes that those girls cook from that rice batter down at Hampton Chutney, and wrap around a variety of fillings, are some of the best culinary things that have happened to that part of the city in a white?in my estimation, since the Balthazar Bakery opened and the nice kids who work there started selling those great fruit focaccias to me and all those leather-jacketed European sharpies who stay at the Soho Grand, I guess. (Or else who just materialize, by some occult process of generation, from pools of motor oil on Crosby St. And a question: Is it me, or does the Balthazar Bakery go out of its way to hire black and Hispanic kids? It's hard to be sure, and I don't really care enough to try to find out. But if they did, it would seem to be a good thing, and I'd like Balthazar even more than I already do.)
So what happens is that they make a big crepe?a golden brown, crispy-chewy, sweet entity that bears about it no trace of what I persist in imagining was its thin, ricey, bilgewater nascency. Next they slop one of a number of fillings on it. For example: straight-up masala, which is that mellow spicy-curried potato-salad sort of stuff that's impossible to hate; or roasted tomato, arugula and jack cheese; or grilled portabellos, spinach and balsamic roasted onions; or curry chutney chicken (whatever that is, but it sounds good), spinach and those same roasted onions; or tuna with cilantro chutney dressing, avocado, arugula and tomatoes.
Then they wrap the thing, but without pinching the ends joint- and burrito-style. The result is a loose, appealingly shambolic-looking open-ended wrap, which is served to you on a run-of-the-mill plastic tray lined with a piece of wax paper. The girl hands it to you from behind the counter, you collect plastic knives and forks and napkins and Poland Spring water and go sit on a stool in order to address yourself to it.
The first time you eat here's kind of embarrassing, because the thing's so big?maybe the length of your arm, this dosa wrap, and as wide as my outstretched hand. It flops over the edges of your school-lunch tray. People stare at it, and it becomes a sort of conversation piece for the smartly dressed downtowners who stand in line waiting to patronize, for the first time, this new establishment.
"Jesus, that's big."
I'd thank you for the comment, ma'am, under a variety of other circumstances, but now I just scurried away in shame?I wouldn't want anyone to think that I ate a lot or anything. (It's downtown Manhattan, after all, and a girl has her pride.) But, in fact, these dishes go down easily. Dosa contains no fat: it's all light as a feather. Which means that you can eat these inexpensive wraps all the time, every day. Which in turn means that the Soho/Little Italy neighborhood (Hampton Chutney is located right next door to Savoy) now contains yet another good, inexpensive eatery, to complement Rice and replace Pepe Rosso, which became insufferable and crowded and arrogant years ago, and is now absolutely impossible.
The Hampton Chutney ambience: beach town transplanted to Crosby St. Preppie lacrosse kids in baseball caps spending their summers handing you dosas in a wholesome environment of clean light and blond wood.
Hampton Chutney Co., 68 Prince St. (betw. Crosby & Lafayette Sts.), 226-9996.
One sweet soft evening this spring I'll float right down to Reade St.?that westernmost block where the bar throws red neon over rain-fragrant cobbles, and the chimneys atop the warehouses are daffy and bent and cockeyed?and locate that Luca Lounge waitress and give those big plump smiling rosy cheeks of hers a June-drunk squeeze?
And get my ass tossed, bodily, right out of the place, too, but that's fine. Somersaulting skyward out of the busboys' arms, up through gravity and mesosphere and ether, laughing?I'll arc up over merry Tribeca rooftops and the glittering nighttime river. The Washington Bridge will greet me with beacon-light twinkles. Barge-whistles will moan merry greetings. Against the huge indigo world below me the billion diamond lights of Manhattan, Jersey City, Hoboken, Staten Island, Weehawken and Brooklyn will shine.
And all because I've squeezed that waitress' lovely cheeks.
The plump smiling cheeks of this charming waitress at Tribeca's Luca Lounge expressed the explosive regenerative power of the dawning spring. And she remained charming?this was an achievement?even while stiff-arming my dinner companions, who requested of her an ashtray under the erroneous supposition that they could get away with smoking à table, here in this big dead-empty restaurant, which contained no other patrons, on Reade St., across the street from the sleepy bar on this empty night.
I mean this place was empty. This was weird for a Wednesday night in Tribeca. Nor, at 7 p.m., was it that early. We spread out, easing back, kicking our legs out?the three of us?at a table at the room's far western end. We had the run of the place. The space here is singular?the room's L-shaped. You walk in off the street, and find that you can either walk straight down one of the L's axes, or else make a left into the other. A long (and under that night's empty circumstances, lonely) bar runs perpendicular to the street?that is, runs along the eastern wall of the right axis (locate your compasses, consult your charts).
The establishment's front facade consists of large plates of glass, in classic Mid-90s International Lounge-Style, so you can look out on the melancholy old stage-set 19th-century shipping-industry street. We huddled back in our little corner of the world, peering through great expanses of dusk at beacons in the distance: the glow of a wood-fired oven across the room, for example. A mysteriously serious figure in chef's whites worked it; worked at something behind the counter that we could not see. He was a weird waxwork chef; he might have been devising anything back there (although it was probably just a pizza). Around us in the dusk, votives flickered from tabletops. Sometimes our nice waitress would materialize out of the gloom, and I'd feel like clinging to her arm, just to feel her human closeness, with that same deep scared yearning with which you want to cling to another human being when you encounter one in a dark and lonely cityscape when the rest of the world's gone indoors.
What follows is an exciting account of the food that we ate:
1. A pizza margherita, cooked in the wood-burning stove over across the way, which you might have noticed was mentioned previously in this present example of food writing. I dislike eating pizza in New York: can't generally tolerate the soft flabby crusts and the overwhelming agglutinations of cheese that render me dyspeptic; can't deal with the peeling, fucked linoleum in the plywood-doored bathrooms, can't deal with the guys who work the counter, who are never Italians but rather guys of other ethnicities?Croats, Poles, Finns, Letts, whatever?acting stereotypically Italian, which seems, libelously, to involve a neat grafting of machismo to grime. I tend to reserve my pizza-eating for Spartina, or the great pizza restaurants of New Haven, and then to hell with it.
But the point is that this was one exceptional and first-rate pizza margarita, yes indeed?man, was it ever something special. A pizza margarita is a straight-up pizza, just the sauce and the cheese, but this one was possessed of that crispy-chewy wood-oven thin-crust chewiness that warms the hearts of pizza enthusiasts the planet over. Wow, that was a good pizza. Really. Whoa. Take my word for it.
2. Bruschetta. What needs to be said about this bruschetta is that it actually worked, which is to say that the bread maintained its integrity: it wasn't a miserable little disc that busted into pieces as soon as you bit into it. The cooked bread was olive oily, moist and chewy?your mouth could groove with it, could establish a rhythm, a cadence, a meter. All in all, this was a most satisfying dish and I recommend it to those patrons who honor this establishment with their custom. Yes, that sure was some discerning bruschetta. Man oh man.
3. Chicken parmesan. It seemed to me there was too thick a layer of white cheese atop the cutlet. It reminded me of that dried gummy paint layer that forms along the bottom of the ass-side of an old paint-can lid you find in your basement.
4. Some sort of salad or something, which both of my companions ordered. The salads were served in oversized bowls. They seemed to have been enjoyed, but I didn't inspect their particulars.
This place doesn't take credit cards. Nor, as I said, does it seem to contain human beings. Right about when we were about to leave, two women showed up and were seated?were seated wherever they wanted to be seated. Because we're talking empty. Void. Vacuum. Zero. Zip. And I think the reason for the emptiness is that the place vibes in several ways that don't mesh together?what you have here is a restaurant suspended between a couple of identities. For example, there's the cavernous woodiness of the place, which evokes the rathskeller at the State U., as if you're about to settle in for bagel dogs, Cokes and fries in the presence of aggies. But then there's the glowing wood oven, which signifies Flatiron ca. 1995. While the unopened bottles of San Pellegrino on each table might be any smart Mediterranean place?Roc right up the street, or Arqua. And also it's called a "lounge," which of course evokes the dotcom era's plush sofas, stupefying coke-binges and morally reprehensible flavored martinis and footwear, and?I don't know, it's all just a little hard to figure out, your cerebrum's forced to work too hard to massage the data you're receiving into some coherent form that will allow you to feel at home with it, to settle into it, to live with it, see?
I don't think the fact that Luca Lounge is tucked off onto quiet Reade St. has anything to do with it. A lot of thriving Tribeca restaurants are hard to find. I still have trouble finding Walker's. I'm always one block to the east of it, it seems.
Luca Lounge, 134 Reade St. (betw. Hudson & Greenwich Sts.), 226-8928.
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