In the seasonal madness, compounded this year by bulging pockets and raging bulls, everyone who has a restaurant wants to open two more and everyone who has ever eaten a square meal talks of launching a restaurant.
No surprise, then, that bars and lounges and nightclubs keep trying to be restaurants too. I am requesting a wardrobe allowance and maybe a bodyguard so I can keep tabs on this phenomenon.
At first, it feels like we've stumbled down a rabbit hole or maybe wandered into an S&M club. We find ourselves in a vast cavern, all black and neon: fuchsia, purple, red. It has a do-it-yourself feel, an off-the-beaten-track club from an earlier decade when we would have been too sloshed or too stoned or too in love to see things this clearly. Weird paintings of people screaming, weeping, maybe even dripping blood, hang in a far corner. We're getting that look from a couple of burly guys at the bar. Barbie, blinking at the podium, looks as surprised to see us as we are to be here. What are we doing in this whatever-it-is? My pals want to know. Well, we've come to taste the food of a chef I seem to be following all over town. This is Hush, a bar, a lounge somewhere out back behind the half-drawn curtain, and the whole place turns into a disco after 10 p.m., though the amphetamine beat already blares. And John Tesar from 13 Barrow St. and One/3 by way of the Dining Room on Columbus is supposedly out back at the range.
A lone waiter finally takes us in tow; seeming to understand we've come to eat, he leads us to a table, pours water, brings red wine and menus. Knowing Tesar's pizzas, I suggest we send for a couple while we decide what to order. "Tandoori-chicken pizza with mango-fig chutney, yeeeshh." My pizza-maven mate, the Road Food Warrior, drops the menu. "But darling, this is the guy from 13 Barrow. You like his pizzas. Remember the Peking-duck pizza?" Tonight it's spelled "Peeking Duck." Intentionally, I want to believe. We order one Peeking and the aged-goat-cheese pizza with braised spring leeks.
"Fun Food?" asks one of my guests, a feisty octogenarian from out west. "Fun Food?" That's what it says on the menu. "Food for the table to share," our waiter explains. At this point, most critics and some serious food lovers I know would be out the door in a huff.
"Let's just sample a few things," I urge my friends. "And if it's too horrible, we'll move on elsewhere." I'm counting on chef John Tesar, even though I'm wondering if he's lost his mind or been somehow coerced into servitude here. We are shouting over the crushing din in the almost-empty cave. We beg the waiter, the bartender, the doorkeeper, anyone, to turn it down a bit. By the time we've finished off the pizzas and surrendered to the very good goat-cheese-and-jack quesadilla with smoked chicken and two salsas, and finished a generous hill of Mediterranean chopped salad with an intriguing hint of mint, a handful of would-be diners are drifting in, superglam chicks in flippy little slips and spike heels tack-tack-tacking across the floor. The D.J., a bleached blond with unbleached stubble, scales a ladder to his perch atop a wall. We strain to speak over the insistent clamor, but we're not giving up. We're not moving out of here. The five of us, carpers and doubters alike, are too taken with the baby ribs in citrus-chipotle barbecue with crispy onions, fried oysters with charred-tomato salsa and avocado tortilla, and enough chili-rubbed lamb chops and shoestrings for all, and at prices that seem rashly low. Is that a typo? Fourteen dollars for lamb. Only a sludge of risotto disappoints. I'm eager to stay on for Tuesday's late-night African drums but can't persuade anyone to join me.
Three weeks later, the place is even emptier. Friends who join us are predictably puzzled. "Where are we?" the sophisticated accessory designer who's been everywhere keeps asking. "What is this place? Are we in Kansas?" I know how to banish her doubts. Fabulous caviar-smeared himachi tartare. Exquisite seared dayboat scallops on celery-root purée, and cornmeal johnnycakes with smoked salmon and chive crème fraîche. Her mate, worried he won't get enough to eat if we're all sharing, discovers that 48 ounces of sliced porterhouse and creamy mashed potatoes, after half a dozen starters, fills even his void (at $45, this is the menu's only high-price splurge, but it easily feeds four or more). After so much food, it's an effort to do full justice to the tempting flourless chocolate cake and Meyer-lemon tart, but needless to say, we finished both desserts. And the powder-room attendant sells candy bars and peanut-butter cups, if that's not enough.
I'm not quite sure what to do about Tesar and his appealing fun food. Dare I send you there? This is clearly not for cuisinary purists or Daniel loyalists, or for Nobu's people, or for that self-assured crowd who think hotels are done by Ian or Andre and will follow Keith McNally to the end of the dock on Gansevoort. But Tesar insists he was fully conscious when he signed on to feed whoever wanders into Hush, knowing the place will turn into a noisy, bouncing brawl drawn by a posse of promoters at 10:30 or 11. There's always a chance his partners will reward him with a real restaurant of his own one day, he says. As for me, I really miss Xenon and Studio, and even Regine's. Or maybe I miss who I was when I boogied every night till 4 a.m. I have a friend who's deeply into African dance. You might catch my act one Tuesday.
Hush (17 West 19th Street; 212-989-4874). Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; dancing at 10. A.E., M.C., V.
Due west, where the cowboys of chic collide with the meat market, Oriont has yet to open its upstairs dining room or switch on its promised cabaret, but the blackish-green-on-black lounge and bar is already packed. It's surely a sign of the new Meat Market magnetism: Oh, what fun to jostle the bikers, navigate the treacherous pavement, and inhale the pervasive parfum de cow fat. Of course, owner Michelle Jean has fans from earlier stints at Circa and Restaurant 147. And there may be a crowd drawn by the sexy aura of designer Christopher Ciccone's riff on thirties Shanghai, not to mention the possibility his sister, Madonna, might slither in at any moment. Certainly, there is an extra frisson in the Kiehl's potions of the ladies' room. Well, I am impressed.
Oriont. I suppose it's politically incorrect to suggest that some dyslexic genius came up with that name, Oriental Garden and Orienta being already claimed. A team of sushi chefs whittles and rolls away nonstop. And Macao-born chef Rosa Lo San Ross's take on Pacific Rim- fusion lounge food is perfect for a crowd that actually prefers to graze. The better to table-hop. The better to hit the road on a lemming rush. A friend who lives nearby says he's been back twice just for the smoked-eel-sushi box. But running into fellow nightcrawlers is clearly a plus for him. Tonight, everyone at our table has popped up once or twice to air-kiss or slap-hug someone they know and puff on a cigarette. We are seated in an intense transit surge opposite the bar.
Behind us I have a sense of glamour; bold-type six-somes; "Ben Stiller," someone whispers; "Madonna" is the rumor (possibly in the VIP nook). I crane my neck, but so much modish black cloth against black walls makes a blur. I am left to focus on tricolor tartare turbans (excellent), rare grilled tuna in wasabi soy (a bit scant), baby-back ribs (insist the kitchen slice them apart), all sorts of dumplings in a steamer (small and soggy) and juicy slices of red poached filet mignon on luscious baby potato (not potatoe, Mr. Quayle) salad. I find the shredded chicken with hoisin in lettuce cups dry and boring, and the oddly flavored tofu inedible, but love soba noodles in peanut-coconut dressing and the long beans with thin batons of Asian pear and black sesame in a sesame vinaigrette. Chocolate cake with orange essence is so dense one bite goes a long way. And sake-poached fruit is deliciously firm and refreshing. Oh, this is foolish. I actually had to stop gossiping and flirting and being witty and comparing pashminas with my friends and reapplying my lipstick to even think about food. I'll be back if they ever get the dining room open and see how much that matters.
Oriont (431 West 14th Street; 212-645-1988). Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to midnight; bar open from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. A.E., M.C., V.