July 25, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Miss Lily’s Minds Its Busyness

Plantain chips, mango and Scotch Bonnet add sweet and heat to snapper ceviche. Photo; Steven Richter
Plantain chips, mango and Scotch Bonnet add sweet and heat to snapper ceviche. Photo; Steven Richter

       Miss Lily’s sizzles with a runway of late-night chic-lettes and long-haired bikers in 80’s thrift shop primp. I can’t swear I am simply pleased by the robust goat curry and savory oxtails. I might be mesmerized by immersion in a rainbow of diversity to rival Red Rooster uptown. The slim unreal fawn with heart shaped derriere in a striped evening gown. The mahogany show-stopper in a bare red mini. A young Diana Ross in black silk cut-outs. Wouldn’t they make a great fashion spread? And that’s just the staff.

The to-and-fro of Miss Lily’s hosts, dressed for the runway, is distracting. Photo: Steven Richter

       I’m stopped mid-chomp on the marvelous jerk-grilled corn.  Its toasted coconut makes it a strong contender in the ethnic corn league against the lime-cascabel-chili-cotija-cheese-aioli-smeared corn we demolished the night before at Cascabel Taqueria. I’m urging my friends to take a cod fritter before I eat more than my share.

Summer dress ranges from derrière cri to Salvation Army. Photo: Steven Richter

       I do so love summer. Corn, of course, and the diverting fashion free-for-all. The meticulously perfect blonde in the pink pinafore. Amazons with slicked back hair. Men in tanks to show off their ‘tats. Not that there aren’t also mere mortals here: young women in ill-fitting fricks or short shorts. Men in that in-between tonsorial moment, neither bald enough nor hairy enough to make a testosterone statement.  

He’s from Albania, into the curry goat, and doesn’t mind our paparazzi. Photo: Steven Richter

       Miss Lily’s Favorite Cakes (as it says on the sign outside) is not Anna Wintour’s worst nightmare.  It’s not the Serge Becker club in her Village backyard that she protested so eloquently at the Community Board 2 meeting in St. Anthony of Padua’s basement. (Please do not be so shallow as to ask what she was wearing.).  Becker retreated on plans for the private party room next door with a terrace that might waft jerk smells and jerks’ yells into the landmarked MacDougal-Sullivan garden shared by just 22 townhouses, including Wintour’s.  

      And big shock, I have no problem reserving (under a guest’s not-particularly-boldface name) for fabulous Thursday. So much for a club snub.  At the host stand, the hipster in the hat is not giving us the fisheye. “Your friends haven’t arrived but we’ll seat you right now,” he says with a smile. How cool is that?

        Already I’m shedding my crocodile scales, sliding on orange leatherette into a narrow booth with a down-home Formica table, definitely digging the Caribbean cute: dish towel napkins, of course, checkerboard floors, sconces of big flowered platters centered by light bulbs, and menu listings over the small bar offering juices the place is mostly not serving tonight.

        “We’ll be offering those drinks – Irish moss, passion fruit, beet root - when we open the panini place and juice bar next door,” our patient, unpretentious waitress advises, suggesting the house ginger beer might be too sweet for the Road Food Warrior, offering fresh made ginger soda instead.

I’m wearing stay-on lipstick so I can eat jerk corn with toasted coconut. Photo: Steven Richter.

        In the harrowing countdown to convince the neighborhood that Miss Lily would not be anything like Box, Becker’s bawdy night club, but rather a modest Jamaican restaurant with a James Beard award-winning chef, the right to sell serious booze fell by the wayside.

        We’re making do with $14 cocktails, like Champagne Bubbla (with Lillet and raspberries) and Pressure Drop (sake mixed with fresh lime juice and kaffir lime leaves), enough of them to boost the check to $225 for our four with tax and tip, even though entrees range modestly from $15 to $23, sides are $5 and desserts a gentle $8.  A deal since the floor show is free.

I can handle the heat of pepper shrimp, just wish they were less cooked. Photo: Steven Richter

       Our India-born fire-loving friend eats the torrid pepper shrimp, shell and all, but graciously peels one for his spice-wary date. I’m doing the same, not quite as elegantly, for the Road Food Warrior, who has lost his passion for the scorch. These heads-on-firecrackers – named Middle Quarters on the menu for the small Jamaican town famed for them – are almost too hot for me.

Starters to share: fritters, ackee dip, fiery shrimp, fabulous jerk corn. Photo: Steven Richter

       The fritters are safe enough, plump so you can taste the cod, though their curry sauce seems bashful with the salty, Scotch Bonnet shrimp heat still burning on your lips. The lure of slightly soggy plaintains chips to drag through bland ackee escapes me.

Check out the back room while waiting in line for the bathroom. Photo: Steven Richter

       As it nears ten, dim lights grow dimmer, the music - an island mix of reggae and hip hop – gets louder. Instead of complaining or just muttering darkly, I find myself bouncing along. The women, getting taller, rush by us to the hotter, darker, louder backroom, where walls and tables are paved with album covers and the staff gazelles are bopping to the beat. I get to check it all out waiting in line for the lone bathroom out back.

Inside the fritter crunch find a savory blend of cod. Photo: Steven Richter

       I’m sober enough to be annoyed when a runner brings main courses before clearing abandoned starter plates. Amalie, our guest’s date, takes a bite of her jerk chicken warily and announces she can handle it.  It’s juicy enough, even the white meat, but the bird seems to have lost its essential jerk heat. Bradford Thompson is the award winning executive chef here. Thompson, married to a Jamaican woman whose late mother was a jerk chicken legend, has followed her recipe, but admits it might have gotten too toned down after complaints. It’s not easy to calibrate heat to please both Jamaicans and innocent American palates, he says. He’s spent hours tracking down Scotch Bonnets, and has found farms in Ohio, Arizona and Texas who have promised to ship him tons he can freeze for the winter.  Meanwhile, we have a spray bottle of jerk sauce on the table to shoot it up.

        Jerk is not the only way to go. There’s a vegan Bushman plate, steamed grouper, and my oxtails layered with deep flavor from three days marinating in garlic, onion, scallion, ginger and carrot. The rice and beans don’t thrill me. Maybe you have to be born to it.  Still I’m eating the cole slaw alongside – ordinary, but freshly made.  And I’d be back for the “pasture raised” curry goat with Irish potatoes.

Miss Lily’s banana cream pudding could have a little more oomph. Photo: Steven Richter

       Of course we’ll have dessert, if only as an excuse to sit a little longer feeding on the lotus parade. Where are they putting them all?  That long-haired dude, handsomer than Brad Pitt on a good day, I’d have him for dessert. Coconut cake so rich and lush will have to do. (Miss Lily has only one favorite tonight, alternating with the carrot cake, because there’s not much room for baking.) Our friends are oohing and aahing over what’s billed as Miss Lily’s banana cream pudding. It’s grade school cafeteria stuff to me. I want it lusher, more banana, please, with Nilla wafers immersed and melting.

        I can’t help wondering if the club impresario plans a secret joint in the cellar next door – like the Who-Do-You-Know exclusive cave at his La Esquina.  Thompson laughs.  “It’s too small,” he says. “And there is no cellar.” 

        “You could tunnel your way to Anna Wintour’s backyard,” I suggest.

        He’s still laughing.

132 West Houston between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets. 646 588 5375. Monday to Friday noon to 2 am. Saturday 11 am to 2 am. Sunday 11 am t 4:30 pm and dinner from 5:30 too midnight.

Patina Restaurant Group