January 6, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Haunting The Writing Room


The rotisserie runs 24 hours a day turning out this ebulliently flavored chicken.

          If Susy and Michael Glick had meant to revive Elaine’s, I can assure you they wouldn’t have taken two and a half years and spent four million dollars to open The Writing Room. Don’t arrive bristling to confront the ghost of the late, departed den mother to the 80s Lit Pack.


The Writing Room’s special effects signal how far we are from Elaine’s shabby chic.

          No need to go looking for insult or affirmation. This isn’t Elaine’s and it ain’t ever gonna be. It’s too clean, roomy, expensively decorated–and the food is mostly good or very good.  The prices are gentle too: pasta is $12 as an appetizer, fabulous sides $5 or $6, a knockout rotisserie chicken with root vegetables for two just $38 (compared to $72 for the Poule de Luxe at Rotisserie Georgette).

          Maybe you know the Glicks from their Parlor Steakhouse a few blocks away. In that case, kiss, kiss and welcome. If not, Susy may give you a quick fish eye, checking you out as she decides where to seat you, and you might hate her for being so slim and stylish and beautiful, especially if you are not. But if you were around in the early Halberstam-Talese days of the Great Saloon War of 1975, ignored as most females were, you have the right to look a little shopworn by now.


Warm Parker House rolls, fresh from the oven. Can I make one last till soup arrives?

          Still, I cannot duck under the awning and walk in the door without memory flashes from  nights I came with one pet or another of Madame Defarge. The arugula salad with balsamic vinaigrette and the veal chop were quite edible, and everyone’s check, was $40, no matter what you ordered, so she could cuff the artist who happened to be broke.

 
          “…Everybody wants to be Somebody, and Elaine's Somebodies were mostly Nobody to Anybody Else,” I wrote in 1971 of Elaine's: playpen for the quality media set. “Reputations soar or stub mortally on how long a man has to stand at the bar of this lovingly seedy little joint on the 88th Street edge of Nowhere before getting a table somewhere in back of playwright Jack Richardson's head.”

          No need to work up a grump anymore. Jack Richardson is gone. Halberstam too. Willie Morris. Patrick Shields. Her guys. Dead. Less tribal in old age. Gone Hollywood. Happily catered to now in Brooklyn. Tiptoeing carefully to keep a new wife amused. Civilians will carry the load here -- readers, well, hopefully readers, if not writers.

 

If you wrote your first book on one of these machines, count yourself lucky to be here.

          Don’t waste a brood about not being seated in the family corner. Wherever that is.  I think it’s the bar room, now hidden behind Susy’s right shoulder, although I am assured that our corner two-top in the sprawling, sedate front room is where the Glicks themselves like to sit. Photographs of the old timers on the wall are gently nostalgic. Gay Talese said he and Nan might come once. But he already knows where he stands with the Literary Guild.

Library designer Thatcher Wine’s theme is New York. Best not to look for your book.


          On two early visits, my companion much prefers the small library where the wall of book shelves has been curated by Thatcher Wine. If you have never heard of “curating a library” or Thatcher Wine, you’ll simply admire the handsome checked floor, the antique typewriters and the collection of books --why not? -- until the first one you see just happens to be Ruth Reichl’s and not yours. (There are many ways to break a writer’s spirit.)


Lemon-touched gnocchi with roasted mushrooms and pesto make a great starter.


          Enough futzing around.  “Where’s the lead?” as my late husband, the legendary editor Donald Forst, used to say. And what comes next? “Good grub, gentle prices.” Some old familiars. American favorites. Not that many items. Imagine a contemporary New York menu without octopus. And kale. I can imagine eating dinner here twice a week. 


Are you four? Share two starters, the deep-rubbed ribs and the white fish.

          It will take a while for the service to shape up. I’m not sure why the busboy carried away the fabulous homemade Parker House roll I was still eating. Though just as well, I would have finished it. I was trying to prove I could make it last.  The kitchen seems unusually slow.


How rich can a chowder be? This one comes with house-made oyster crackers afloat.


          I’m forgiving all that for the miraculous roasted chicken soup –- vibrant with the complex pow of the bird and root veggies that simmered in it, elegant with hand cut pasta. On my second visit, I’m taken with the rich and creamy New England clam chowder – razor and manila clams combined – with oyster mushrooms and islands of house-made oyster crackers afloat.


Daub whitefish mousse and some caviar on grilled caraway bread.

          That, plus a $15 appetizer portion of 24-hour brined and dry-rubbed spare ribs with apple butter barbecue sauce and some pickles is a discount dinner.  We’re sharing as we always do, so I’ve tasted my friend’s smoked white fish mousse daubed on grilled caraway bread. One daub and then another.


The quest for first-rate fried chicken -- could stop right here with a cheer for the biscuit.


          Parlor Steakhouse Chef Lucas Billheimer, doing double-duty running the kitchen here, never goes for simple when complex is possible. Taste the end result and you’ll see that’s not meant as criticism. The chicken prep is a two-day affair. The rotisserie already runs all night.  His lemon-touched gnocchi are piled with roasted mushrooms and swirled with the green of pesto. Delicious excess, and better than the Swiss chard and sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli with sunchoke purée. The doughy rounds seem heavy to me.


Chef Billheimer loves roasting vegetables – this is tonight crop in a $5 side.


          Roasted winter vegetables seem lost under frisée and herbs in the appetizer salad, only to  emerge in stunning abundance on a $5 side. Hash browns come in two fat cakes for $6. Baby sweet potatoes, poached in water steeped with apple pie spices -- clove, cinnamon and nutmeg – then cooled, dried, smashed, and fried to a crunch in caramelized molasses with a splash of lime and a jalapeño hit -- make the best dish of the night.


The sweet potato crisps -- a remarkable invention – are a must for me.


          I won’t threaten to throw myself under a train like Anna Karenina if it’s not on the menu next time I come by, but I will definitely feel deprived.


Hash potatoes are also meant for the table to share.


          I haven’t yet tasted the veal meatloaf , the lobster boil, or the Parlor strip. But I could settle here and end my quest for really good fried chicken. I like that it comes with cole- slaw and a house-baked biscuit. Strangely-boring char with fingerling potato confit had been replaced by perfectly-cooked salmon a few days later.


With such dazzlingly coated popsicles, you scarcely need a brownie, but there it is.

          

          Huckleberry cheesecake cobbler with crème fraîche ice cream is worth the calories (yes, sometimes I think that way after consuming 3000 calories or so). The huckleberry is better than the very ordinary apple pie for two. But a trio of chocolate-coated creamsicle pops served alongside a fudgy,  deep-midnight triangle of frosted brownie, are the not-to-miss dessert.

 


The bill comes in a folder evoking that familiar keyboard now a collector’s item.

           Be careful as you exit. There’s a step and no warning. Easy to miss. You could leave with your ego intact only to smash a knee.

1703 Second Avenue between  88th and 89th Streets. 212 335 0075. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm., Friday and Saturday till midnight.

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