The QSF Guided Tour
Welcome to the new frontier. Sure the East Village is home to New York’s grunge set. And yes, it’s still probably the easiest place to score whatever mind-altering substance you crave. It’s also the simplest place in the city to get a tattoo as well as being home to New York’s cutting-edge artists, theaters, music scene, clubs and performance art. Best of all, some of the hottest new restaurants in town are springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Maybe they don’t rate four stars in the New York Times, but try to get a reviewer to cover this neighborhood.
Leading the pack is First. Chef Sam DeMarco knows good food. Actually he knows great food. The first thing you notice as you enter into the gleaming bar is the ceiling, stretched with a fantasy of tightrope wire, chrome and a strange facsimile of Star Wars’ Death Star (contrary to rumor, it doesn’t move). Highlights on the menu are an appetizer of guinea hen with caramelized onion, pistachios and plum sauce, and an always delicious pasta of the day. In the mood for something big? Come Sundays for the roast suckling pig special. Want a truly memorable experience? Let Sam prepare his five-course tasting for you. Check out the well-selected wine and beer lists, too. (First, 87 1st Avenue between 5th & 6th Streets, 212-674-3823.)
A couple of blocks away is Circa. This place tops my list for decor. Polished copper tabletops reflect artfully planned lighting. The surrounding walls mix exposed brick, wood and strange giant leaves. The bar is a long, curving S, with rows of bottles tempting you to just stop in for a drink. You can sit and relax in the front lounge area, or grab a table and sit down to dine. Chef Frank DeCarlo is another whiz in the kitchen.
From the main menu, don’t miss the lobster, tomato and artichoke risotto. Pastas are also great here. Where Circa really shines though is brunch. It may be the hardest meal for a restaurant to do right (we’re all at our pickiest late Sunday mornings) but Circa does it brilliantly. Don’t miss the huge plate of biscuits with sausage gravy. A pot of tea and the smoked salmon platter is my idea of a perfect weekend afternoon. A great wine selection from local consultant Steve Miller rounds out the experience. (Circa, 103 2nd Avenue at 6th Street, 212-777-4120.)
Hidden away on a block that looks like somewhere your mother told you never to go is Casanis. A cool little hole-in-the-wall French bistro where chef Sebastian Macszo turns out some of the best “simple” food around. The room is likewise simple, standard French food and drink posters adorn the wood and plaster walls. Tables are crammed tightly together, so plan on getting to know your neighbors – but that’s part of the East Village experience these days. Highlights on the menu include the salad with chevre and dried cherries, and the main course of roasted and confited duck with a lemon-fig sauce. The daily specials are always tempting, even when, as often is the case, your waiter can’t remember what they are. The wine list is chockfull of unusual selections from the French countryside, making this a don’t miss dinner. Oh, one note, cash only. (Casanis, 54 E. 1st Street between 1st & 2nd Avenues, 212-777-1589.)
Across the street from the Joseph Papp Public Theater is L’Udo. Rustic brick, frescos and a garden make a great setting for simple Provençal. An early prix-fixe menu offers the perfect meal before heading to the Public Theater or just down the block to the long-running Blue Man Tubes production. Highlights of the regular menu are the baked sea bass with saffron broth and Provençal vegetables, and for dessert, a baked apple with calvados and vanilla ice cream. The wine list reflects the cuisine, concentrating on simple country wines from both France and Italy, though many a trifle on the pricey side for what they are. Still, L’Udo is a delightfully romantic place. (432 Lafayette Street just south of Astor Place, 212-388-0978.)
It is impractical to discuss East Village dining without at least giving a nod to the strip of 6th Street known as Little India. A couple of dozen Indian restaurants line up side by side on both sides of the street and trail around the corners. Most are basic, with virtually identical menus. Though not hot or trendy, one stands above the rest, Windows on India. The corner location, lots of windows, beautiful lighting and impeccable service make this the spot for Indian dining in the East Village. A far ranging menu that even includes selections from Indonesia offers a vast number of dishes. My favorite appetizer is dal papri, a cold salad of potatoes, yogurt and tamarind sauce topped with crunchy diamonds of fried lentil fritters (the word “fritter” pops up more times on the menu than I cared to count). The best of the main courses come from the tandoori oven; go for a combination platter of your favorite meats, fish and vegetables. Unusual for an Indian restaurant, Windows on India offers a wine list, most of which is well picked to go with the cuisine. (Windows on India, 344 E. 6th Street at 1st Avenue, 212-477-5956.)
Numerous other culinary adventures await those of you who venture into the hinterlands of the East Village. There are the traditional and long-lived delis like the Second Avenue Deli, Katz’s and Ratner’s; Polish and Russian fare is served up from Kiev to Veselka to Christine’s, while Asian cuisine from all over – Lavo (Thai), Angry Monk (Tibetan), Esahi and Iso (Japanese), Indochine (Vietnamese) – are some of my favorites. One of the nicest things about dining out in this neighborhood is that you can have a great meal and your credit card won’t have a meltdown when the bill arrives.
Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.