April 18, 1994 | Vintage Insatiable

Martini’s/Mustang Grill                    

        Martini’s Martini could revive that ancient exercise, the three-martini lunch. Except you need only one – this vast swimming pool of vodka or gin with a hint of orange and aromatic bitters in a stemless, “mouth-blown” cone, set on crushed ice in a roly-poly globe. Chef Richard Krause, who plotted this joint venture with the Riese Organization, didn’t set out deliberately to stem the tide of designer water. But, pressed to settle on a name, he found it – Martini’s, after the restaurant in It’s a Wonderful Life – “watching the movie for the one hundredth time.”

         Purists may faint, but gourmand adventurers will appreciate the choice of prosciutto or anchovy in the cocktail’s outsize olives. And there’s fresh fruit punch, too, or fresh-squeezed lemonade and limeade – amazingly tart at lunch, killingly sweet at dinner. Now, in this cat’s sixth life (the chef was a California Puckling imported here to launch Batons, then went on to Melrose, the Rose Café, and Silverado), Krause has an Italian accent. There he is, tall, with a long flip of braid flying as he conducts the kitchen chorus, his crew in blowsy white hats, halfway between an artist’s beret and a toque. Original and slightly eccentric, like asking you to sign your wine cork for the permanent collection, or delivering the coat checks in a tiny envelope.

         Don’t say I fall in love too easily. Consider these Puckish pizzas from the handsome stone oven, all of them elegant and zesty. Pastas, lush in the American way. Rigatoni with grilled eggplant and ricotta. Spaghetti with steamed clams and mussels in a spicy tomato sauce. Wonderful whole-wheat fettuccine with potatoes, leeks, and creamy Gorgonzola. Even one with mock noodles – strands of spaghetti squash, grilled shrimp, Portobello mushrooms, and oven-dried tomatoes.

         So many choices: an eggplant-ricotta terrine wrapped in leek; polenta griddle cakes with shrimp and broccoli rabe; fabulous shrimp on fettuccine with basil-tomato cream; splendid veal stew on the same noodles; snapper roasted whole in the stone oven; and Krause’s signature seared tuna with cuts of mango and tomato… all delicious. (Entrées, $12 to $22.)

         There’s even a welcoming display of antipasto at the bar. Sneak a peek before you’re swept off to a table in the low-slung rear. And at lunch (items are $1 to $5.50 less than at dinner), sandwiches come with any antipasto item or parmesan-butter fries – spectacular when crisp, disappointing when soggy. A Falstaffian hero stuffed with meats and cheese doesn’t really need the extra $3 drizzle of white truffle oil. And gravlax with minced capers, olives and red onion would be better if the grilled pizza bread weren’t so oil-slick and doughy.

        There are definitely kinks to unravel before this vast duplex space expands next month into a sidewalk café with a marquee, a lighted trellis, and tables for 100 or so. The room, with hints of the hamburger emporium it once was, has its charms – the stonework, a window on the pastry kitchen above, walls splotched the color of runny egg yolk with a swirl of Tabasco. The odd, striped-wood chastity belt stretched across the ceiling is not one of them. The booths are too tight for the Road Food Warrior’s machine-toned torso, and you get more heat than view from the kitchen.

         Impossible to know for sure if the serving crew is trained to be so annoyingly intrusive or if the house just hires Eagle Scouts and cheerleaders – determined to walk you across the street whether you want to or not, constantly interrupting, fetching, annotating, beseeching one to express a desire. Our town’s star chefs cautiously offer perhaps a dozen starters and an equal number of entrées, so Krause can take a bow for his expansive inventory. With time, I hope he’ll abandon the duds. The lumpen black ravioli in a tepid yellow-pepper puree. The olive pesto that overwhelms the pigeon. The polenta “lasagna” that doesn’t work. A risotto that piles on four kinds of fish and a quartet of mushrooms, a senseless orgy of excess. Though my mouth accepts room-temperature salsa with charred tuna, lukewarm vegetables seem a mistake.

         The rustic tart (to share) is honestly named, its thick, primitive crust folded over apples or – today – not quite enough plums, with ice cream and a puddle of crème anglaise. We can’t seem to stop eating it. The inevitable flourless chocolate cake, the lemon tart, and the burnt orange panna cotta with orange-and-pineapple compote are all better than the ricotta tart. And there are affordable wines – drinkable, too – with suggestions for matching them in the menu’s margins.

         This is an upscale first for the Rieses, whose fast-food fortune till now has reflected real-estate savvy. As for Krause, “I decided to move where the people are,” he says. He plots to catch the roving eye of his neighbor, David Letterman – a lard festival, maybe, with a life-size statue of David in pig fat or a strand of pasta that stretches from the kitchen to the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater. “Isn’t it all show biz?” he says.

810 Seventh Avenue at 53rd Street. Now closed.


Mustang Grill on A Second Margarita

        At the northward end of Second Avenue, eating usually pales next to beer-swilling and mating gambols. So it’s easy to imagine that Mustang Grill is just another canteen for urban cowboys. But look again. See, beyond the bar and the squiggles of neon, the telltale terracotta-and-turquoise walls with the clever patterns made by cutout gels – intimations of the old Café Marimba. There are tiny cactus plants on every table, and giant colored plates with herb snips and pepper dots along the borders – edible graffiti of chefly ambition. And though nothing the kitchen does will make Mesa Grill’s Bobby Flay shiver in his boots, the food is surprisingly good. Priced right, too: appetizers are $4 to $7; entrées, $16 or less.

        Mustang is the newest venture of the Crnobori family. Karl Crnobori, an architect, and his wife, Carol, helped run the Underground, then opened Red Zone. There, son Chris, a graduate of the New York Restaurant School, was food and beverage director. But it was their success with the Sunset Grill, in Sag Harbor, that provoked them to open the Mustang.

        Clearly, more thought went into the chili butter than the snap of service. At times, the humanoids appearing but mostly disappearing seem unprogramed, bringing entrées before clearing starters. But a large frozen margarita will make that farce seem like a floor show. Even if you’re sober, the cakey, moist jalapeno corn bread is difficult to resist (except on nights that it is stale). Start with crisp-fried quesadilla – with spiced shrimp and avocado, or grilled vegetables and goat-cheese. “You guys liking it?” the waiter asks us females. Mesquite chicken with mustardy vinaigrette in a hill of frisée would be a dinner for some “guys” I know. Zippy tomato sauce saves slightly bland calamari, crumbed and deep-fried. We’re fools for barbecued ribs, but I’m not sure why we’ve fallen for chili-rubbed chicken with grilled pineapple and cilantro pesto. Could be the second margarita.

        One night’s tuna, rarish, as requested, sparkles with flavor beside a black-bean salsa and a jicama-pepper salad. Grilled pork chop painted with ancho chile beside peppery polenta is fine. Al dente rigatoni mixes seductively with smoked chicken and grilled potatoes in red-chili pesto. (For just $10). And familiar wines, on a list that’s short and priced downright neighborly, suit this food.

        We’ve eaten most of the peach pie in spite of its soft, slightly gummy crust, and the pecan-caramel pie has forks clashing. It’s a giant candy bar. No one’s urging long detours, or guaranteeing the performance of the kitchen, but if you live in Mustang county, drop by.

Mustang Grill, 1633 Second Avenue, at 85th Street 744 9194
Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene

Patina Restaurant Group