The instant overnight lunacy never ceases to amaze. As if a skittish flock of flutter-bys were poised in midair just waiting to swoop in. Suddenly the word is Match. The place isn’t open, not officially, or so the voice at the other end of the phone warns. But as our taxi creeps blindly down darkened Mercer past a wooden barricade, there is a telltale glow inside a freshly stained wooden storefront – no name, not even a street number, stylishly inscrutable. Come 10 p.m., there is already a nasty velvet rope, and the joint is manic, a milling Gap ad, Women’s Wear Daily’s “Eye” clicking away.
“We’re not really open yet,” the reservationist says two nights later, “and if there’s a restaurant critic in your party, please don’t come.” So you wonder what we are doing here. Well, the Japanese didn’t want Commodore Perry and I’m not sure the Samoans wanted Margaret Mead. As an anthropological chronicler of the nocturnal gypsy, I simply must. We park ourselves against the raw-brick wall in this bare-bones warehouse – the old Benjamin Electric Building – beneath the crushed-stretch-limo structure by John Chamberlain (a portent of caravans to come).
It’s restaurateurs’ night out: Jerry Joseph (Jerry’s), Steve Hansen (Isabella’s, Park Avalon), Eric Goode (soon to launch his own beanery in a gas station on the Bowery), John Fanning from Coco Pazzo, Au Bar ringmaster Howard Stein. And the Royalton’s umpire Brian McNally, communing with the ghosts of his vanished 150 Wooster Street exactly two blocks away. McNally, who’s traded night for day to do community service at 44, lends an empathetic ear to the mournful regrets of -- Roy Liebenthal. Match’s flame may already be casting a final shadow on what was last year’s glossiest hangout. “It’s touching,” says Brian, “how Roy concedes his mistakes.” Like ignoring the rabble seething in the limbo below Tabac’s VIP loft.
Ah, it smells like success. Certainly for the next minute and a half. And since we are recognized from the first, and escape any humbling rope burn or rude lip, we’re actually digging it. The beautiful wait-crew – the men in mechanic’s overalls with the Match logo and women according to Benetton (an Asian beauty kneels to hear our order in seeming devotion, or perhaps fatigue). And the cast of revelers: downtown striplings, vagrants from 10021, a discreet transvestite or two, nicotine clouds of course, and the usual dirty old men who always pop up by a second before total combustion.
It’s Manhattan’s Ritual Nocturnal Shuffle, a tap dance of power and self-affirmation. A dauntless tummler with connections signs a lease. Location helps. Mercer Street already vibrates with heat, the MercBar its furnace. The snoot of no sign elevates the delicious perversity. So do investors with magnetism: Willem Dafoe is one. Downtown-born host Billy Gilroy boasts a following picked up at Lucky Strike, Nell’s, La Gamelle, Odeon. Sniffing the magic, chic-eating magpies descend; their cries echo across the midtown divide. Scribes rush in fueling the folly – pat or pan, it doesn’t matter. All you have to do is hint that it’s happening. Still, the ritualistic frenzy is meaningless, a false alarm, a mere distraction, till the ultimates arrive and give their blessing. Calvin and Kelly with David Geffen, Conde Nast camp counselor James Truman, Anna Wintour, Elle MacPherson, all checking it out. What more do we need? Madonna? Nelson Mandela?
So how’s the food? Horrendous, says one restaurateur. Fabulous, says another. “Pretty good, non, for so soon?” marvels Le Bernardin’s Gilbert Le Coze. And they’re all right. It’s a hodgepodge. Though chef-partner Chris Heyman longs to be the toque of the town, his job won’t get easier as the crush builds. Plans to limit folks in the dungeon below to only a raw bar, dim sum, and desserts are already dashed by demand. So now Match offers the full menu, upstairs and down, abbreviated slightly after midnight.
The eater-friendly menu (updated daily) mixes pub favorites and cross-cultural confusion, pop food at every price. Appetizers, salads, or dim sum (mostly $4.75 a plate) arrive on triple-tiered stands for the table to share, with no pressure to order more. Roughage and crustaceans for vegetarians and vigilantes of fat, with sea critters on ice in a galvanized steel wok – no entrée priced higher than $16.50. The best chewy baguette in a silly burlap sack and something to frost it, cumin-perfumed hummus tonight. So maybe I can’t actually detect any shrimp in the glass-noodle summer rolls, an empty crunch of lettuce, noodles, and mint. And steamed mussels need a bowl to hold their lemongrass curry broth. Radicchio makes a bitter wrap for scrawny spring rolls. And what good is the nice peanutty sate sauce if the chicken is dry? Grilled oysters are a far better bet, as are blue-corn ravioli, plump with cheese in a black-bean salsa, and potato-chive dumplings (piroshki by any other name). Fine deep-fried crab-and-goat-cheese wontons or crispy calamari may ride undressed greens one night and overdressed greens the next. Shiitake mushrooms taste greasy on bruschetta or in a too salty seaweed salad, but a pad Thai-like toss of warm shrimp and rice-noodle salad is wonderful.
Everything the chef does with duck pleases me – savory moo shu duck roll, the spicy duck pizza, even the somewhat primitive spit-roasted duck with dried cherries and prunes (a welcome respite after too many insipid sliced duck breasts). Can’t stop eating the spectacular fries with a lackluster steak, but no need for the nerdy burger or the thin and fatty lamb chops, undone by tamarind glaze and pear-mint chutney. Stick to moist chicken breast with dense garlic mashed potatoes or splendid chunks of seared tuna with a crusty edge on sautéed bitter greens and hope the chef has abandoned that sodden linguine, an homage to Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.
Stake a longer claim to your table as lights inevitably lower and decibels rise. Try a tangy sorbet-and-fresh-fruit sundae, candied-ginger crème brulée, lush chocolate-mousse cake, or a triple-chocolate sundae with cake hidden inside. Our quartet orders a dessert sampler for two, gets charged for three, and finds the slogan “service not included” in three languages sheer poetry. Will Match have time to make the food better before it doesn’t matter? That is the question.
Host Gilroy is famous for his mercurial temper. He once chased a deadbeat out of Lucky Strike with a baseball bat and lost his job at the Water Club after he leapt over the bar to pummel a customer. Gentled by time, he likes to think his duo of Barbarellas at the gate softens the indignity. He hopes to save the velvet for Fridays and Saturdays from 10 p.m. on, madness permitting. Then, even if you have a reservation, you must pay $10 at the door, credited on the dinner check. It’s not to make money, Gilroy protests, just to finance the extra security. Of course, friends are exempt. And he wants neighbors to wander in any old time. How to master the dance? It’s not a club, exactly. It’s just going to feel like one for a while. I guess we’re stuck with our forkways, our rights of prodigal passage, our louche lounging.