Two Houston St. Restaurants

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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.


Let's 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.

"Man, 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.

Eventually 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.
Risa, 47 E. Houston St. (betw. Mulberry & Mott Sts.), 625-1712.

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