Taking Your Meds

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Taking Your Meds

161 E. Houston St.
(Allen St.),

The space has been converted into a nice little Mediterranean/Basque restaurant called Oliva. The place seems to be filled with Europeans, who, despite what's always said about them in New York, really have relatively little to apologize for, and with a smiling young staff that shows signs of understanding the other secret of good service, which is that sometimes you want to be left alone. That's quite a trick to pull off in a little downtown bistro the economic viability of which depends on rapid turnover. And yet these people don't pressure you.

On the other hand, the place is close. You share elbows, ashtrays and conversations with the girls to your right; and with the young Italian mother, her elegantly older husband and her several children to your left. (Yes, you share conversations and ashtrays with the toddlers, too. This is New York and besides, like I said, there are a lot of Europeans here. I bummed a Gauloise off a three-year-old who discussed Manu Chao recordings with me with a certain weary nonchalance until my companion returned from the bathroom.) A pleasant lime-green light refines the air of the place, and milk-white hanging bulbs hum with a buttermilky luminescence. Votive candles on the table. Et cetera. I seem to remember a techno thumpa thumpa thumpa permeating the milky limelight, but not well enough to swear to it, which means not well enough to either sanction it or condemn it. The clientele appears as if it feels at home, and as if it's proud of having been made privy to a fine secret. That's an okay way for a clientele to be.

I love describing food. So what did we eat? Crab bisque with Armagnac was a dish I think you'll enjoy, and therefore I recommend it. The splash of brandy with which the soup had been prepared asserted itself with all the virile, essential, country-Gallic insinuations of which the northern French terroir is?like a Bordelaise drunk cackling over his petanque?on good days eminently capable. Yak, yak, yak. The soup was a smooth, creamy, jovial, restrained pleasure.

Here's another appetizer sure to please the palates of local gourmands?I mean, of course, the garlic shrimp "a la plancha." That is, shrimp on a wooden board. And the menu didn't lie. The sizable shrimp were served on a wooden board, all right, just as we'd hoped?and man, if the name "garlic shrimp" wasn't a good example of truth in advertising, then I'm Stonewall Jackson. The shrimp were garlicky, all right. Eating the dish, my friend and I kept smiling at each other and nodding our heads in satisfaction and flashing thumbs-up signs, enthused by just how garlicky they were.

A bowl of mussels steamed in white wine, tomato and garlic, accompanied by lemon, was better than the usual specimen of this bistro standard. It seemed as if all the flavors that define this sometimes bland and run-of-the-mill dish had been amped up; intensified, somewhat. The white wine was winier; the tomato, tomatoeyer; the garlic, more garlicky. This being a Mediterranean/
Basque restaurant, garlic is, as you might have divined by now, much in evidence. The garlic clove is one of the institutions of the Basque kitchen, as is the red pepper and the Bayonne ham.


We ate entrees. The roasted monkfish, accompanied by cepes, garlic confit, Yukon potatoes and green beans, was excellent. The filet mignon, grilled duck, Atlantic scallops and chicken piperrada are probably all satisfying dishes, too, but we didn't try them. We did, however, try the "Txangurro"?which is to say, a stuffed crab. It represented the meal's only disappointment, not least because it looked so homely, consisting of a big, gnarly crab shell, stuffed with chunks of crab mixed up hardcore-style with nuggets of potato, the whole slop seasoned with tarragon and a touch of Cognac. It wasn't a bad dish, but it wasn't worth its $16, primarily because the kitchen was a little stingy with the crab, and, conversely, too profligate with the potato. The dish is in truth worth approximately $9.50, I say, and it's possible you might be able to haggle the waiter down.

When you eat here, make sure you order a side order of snap peas. A couple dozen of the little green fellows, incredibly fresh and salted and touched with garlic, come warm in a wooden bowl, bathed in a wash of clear, warm water. They're extremely good.

As for desserts, we appreciated the warm apple tart and the raspberry sorbet. The sorbet was accompanied by a bright green slice of marinated pear, which undulated at the side of the plate, like a chubby ward heeler in a St. Patrick's Day rig, slathered in a thin layer of emerald-colored mint jelly, reminding me of something I might have watched Episcopalians and the occasional "acceptable" Jewish family eat when I worked in high school at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, though this dish will also likely appeal to Irishmen. The vanilla bean flan with black cherry confiture sounds like it excels as a dessert, and in retrospect I can't figure out why I didn't order it.

So, Oliva. Cheap (entrees are in the $16-$17 range), low-key (everyone's the same age as you are, and dressed exactly as you are during these eternal and unending casual Fridays that constitute our lives) and situated?like the old bar that preceded it?smack on top of the F train entrance, which means that you can pirouette out of Oliva and huck up your marinated jellied pear right down into that most convenient of holes, taking care not to tag any innocuous old women commuting in from Windsor Terrace.

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