August 3, 1981 | Vintage Insatiable

Eat And Be Seen: Odeon, Joanna, Nuccio

     There is a species of Manhattan snob who will insist he or she has never been south of 57th Street and thinks the Upper West Side is attached to New Jersey. So what, pray tell, is going on down below the Holland Tunnel in the anonymous wastes of West Broadway? The giant red neon letters -- Odeon -- have become a beacon to the eclectic chic.The bachelor rouges of show biz. The art world. Fashion's precious babies of every sexual persuasion. Suburban squares. Punksters with tufts of apricot hair. Refugees from Elaine's. John Belushi, Richard Gere, Milos Forman, David Bowie, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep,Warren Beatty and Mary Tyler Moore, blissfully un-nudged by a crowd determined not to betray the pulse throb of thrill. The message is clear: TriBeCa's Odeon is a hot contender for Bistro of the Year. And folks don't simply tolerate the food…they love it. 

     There is a certain innocence about Odeon -- the innocence of poverty. If partners Brian and Keith McNally and Lynn Wagenknecht (veterans of Café Un Deux Trois, One Fifth, and Mr. Chow) had started flush, "we might have done too much," Brian concedes. "But we had to use what was here. So it doesn't look contrived." You see, they just happened to be strolling by during the transit strike, longing to find a space they could afford, to strike out on their own. "We passed this place, knocked on the windows…the two owners were just sitting there." The deal was made. The three adventurers kept the tacky metal chairs, the homely banquettes, the Tak-a-check machine, the big glass globes (light bright enough to see and be seen by -- that's important). And they brought in a properly silly Art Deco bar of glistening mahogany and mirror, a clock framed in hysterical-green and rose neon, and a déjà vu mural salvaged from a 1940s Woolworth's. There are carafes of water on every table and a young staff dressed in leather neckties and aprons -- all genders alike. They are not necessarily apt. And they have no respect for chef Patrick Clark's nouvelle cuisine heroics -- for his exquisite still lifes on giant plates. In the nine o'clock crush, plates are left to dangle over the table's edge, the geometry of the design ignored. No one has a clue who ordered what. Of course, such laissez-faire does reflect the house philosophy: serious good food in a casual setting without fuss or pretension. Punk and foie gras. Mini Two Shoes and mignonettes of beef and bobby socks. Frank and Ella on the jukebox, Billie Holiday and confit of duck. Well, why not?

     Early on, Odeon drew a late-night crowd and lofting locals at the bar. Dinner was relaxed. Lunch was deserted. What had to have been four charladies en route to work sat drinking Manhattans at 3 P.M. Now you may need to book a day or two ahead. And from time to time the kitchen stalls and sputters. Gentle cheerfulness may dissipate, But in the yawning lulls, habitués seems content to sip, eavesdrop, and survey the wildlife. A dead ringer for Olive Oyl, all in red, table-hops the room. 

       At lunch and supper you'll find the pasta, spinach salad, and omelets you'd expect in a clubby bistro à la mode. For dinner, though, Clark struts the heady stuff he picked up from his mentor, Michel Guérard. The look is there: the artful garnish, the shiny-sauce puddles, the flaky pastry packaging, the vegetables cavorting on new frontiers. Clark has mastered Guérard's dazzling magic with vegetable purées. And now and then the cooking of a chop is perfection, a fish seems blessed, potatoes are irresistible. Oysters are delicately poached with a lacing of vegetable julienne. The chunky mosaic of Clark's chicken-liver terrine is a triumph. But flavors are often uncertain, seasoning can be timid, sauces rarely zing. Cornichons are fiercely brackish, string beans tasteless. Magnificent blanquette of lobster, ordered rare, is toughened by overlong cooking.

     Just seconds too many on the fire mar the sublime thin scallop of salmon ($7) in a zesty tarragon-scented butter. All over town, self-styled nouvelle cuisinists purée vegetables, add cream, and call it soup. Clark makes a delicious soup ($2.50), but with my eyes closed I'm not sure I'd recognize it as mushroom.

     Still, what he does is wonderful to look at, and adventurous: Bibb-lettuce-wrapped mussels in pastry ($4.95), mousseline of asparagus in a sea of artichoke cream ($5), veal chops with cucumber essence ($17.95), quick-sautéed calf's liver with radishes and turnips ($7.95), rare and tasty duck breast ($14) with paper-thin slices of perfect pear in a faintly sweet and shiny sauce, poached salmon fillet with a ragout of bay scallops ($16), and breathtakingly beautiful blanquette of slightly overcooked lobster with pristine little batons of vegetable ($22). His scalloped potatoes ($2) are crusted and crackly, with a melting heart, but for some reason the pasta is always a disappointment: One time I got mean little tortellini ($7.50) richly dressed with prosciutto, asparagus spears, and cream; another time, mucky angel hair ($7.50) with tight little curls claiming to be morels.

     The "very special apple tart" is special only when the apples have flavor, and the accompanying apricot purée is a blah. Poached pear on brioche with almonds and homemade honey ice cream in a swirl of chocolate sauce is sheer delirium. And the crêpes with praline butter are, here, absolute perfection. Price tags on all three are wild -- $4.25 and up.

     Nibble and linger if you'd like. Sip a glass of the house wine. The red is lively and good. Odeon is a place to try out your Zulu pants or Red Army cap, or break in leather chaps or a piano-shawl sarong. Probably no one will jeer if your shoes aren't bronze kid. And it's amusing to explore serious cooking with a sideshow…oops, I mean floor show.

Odeon, 145 West Broadway near Thomas Street (233-0507)

Joanna, a Triumph of Neophilia

     Joanna is a triumph of savvy, timing, old-school ties, unquenchable flackery, and New York's chronic, epidemic neophilia. See how we all hurtle on down to 18th Street, armored in the fluff and ruff of next week's fashion, queuing up with locked jaws jutting gamely. What an endlessly amusing zoo, with its preening peacocks and little foxes, fat cats, social pets, a few creeping Gray Panthers, and all those lemmings.

     The savvy was in sensing that what Manhattan needed was a handsome, easy late-night brasserie, a magnet where power-players of every ilk in black tie or sneakers, could eat a little or a lot any hour of the day. It was just a vast old box factory on East 18th Street, after all…a yawning maw in an undistinguished loft district beginning to take on airs. One million dollars' worth of elbow grease and applied Belle Epoque later, Joanna emerged with mirrors and brass and cast-iron columns, a great sweep of marble bar and gleaming wood. The computer hums inside a brass cashier's cage, and the subdued, sane green walls explode in giant color blowups of flowers that everyone loves to love or loves to hate.

     The timing was a gift. The two-year publicity barrage could not be ignored. The week Joanna finally opened was the week of New York's annual fall-preview issue, which welcomed the "plushly casual, very stylish, slightly roguish lunch-to-late-hours café." Why Joanna? To be perfectly frank, there was nothing more thrilling promised that year. A full-page ad could not have been more enticing.

     Old-school ties? Sheldon Haseltine has them. Haseltine, Joanna's visible partner, cut his teeth at Hoexter's Market and the ephemeral TooCan, and he churns about with earnest scions and playboy preppies, the museum juniors. "It upset my grandmother when I went into trade," he confides. "But being a poor wastrel is not much fun."

     Bachelorhood was almost a religion for Sheldon (till he married the former model Joanna, so much in evidence greeting customers that first autumn). So he understood the average guy's need for a place to take a new woman. "You go to a disco, dance for half an hour, then stop for a drink. By the time you come back she's downstairs getting smacked on coke and you can't find her. But you don't want to take her to Le Cirque, where you feel constrained with a bunch of frogs looking down their noses at you. Here," he observes proudly, "Joe Blow in blue jeans can sit next to Lady Poopface, fashion model." He means to open a nightclub downstairs in the fall: "I want it to be a cross between the front room of Annabel's and Castel's."

     Well, how often to you find Mrs. Thatcher center stage at Annabel's? I've spied Ed Koch twice at Joanna's big round table in the center ring. Baryshnikov makes Joanna a habit. And Ryan and Farrah, Peter Allen, Rex Smith, Allan Carr, Calvin Klein, Glenda Jackson, Alger Hiss (is this a credit?)…Lester Persky, too, lunching with Lord Montagu and Jerry Rubin…and Vitas Gerulaitis, sipping club soda. How do I know all this? I read it, gossip sponge that I am, in Liz Smith and Suzy. The bulletins on Joanna's celebrity munchers just never stop. Glitter draws glitter. Voyeurs and the polyester set are not far behind.

     "It looks like everyone at Nicola's and Le Relais just hopped on a bus and came down here," observes an exquisite blonde in white cashmere and Mongolian lamb who wouldn't dream of eating anywhere else. "The crowd ranges from Un Deux Trois to Plato's Retreat," a sterner eye reports. The weekend crowd might just as well come from Mars, Queens, and Great Neck. Though, Lord knows, Sheldon has struggled to make Sunday brunch (to be resumed in January) obligatory. "Larry Spangler winged in to lunch at the fashionable Joanna with those mavens of style, Diana Vreeland and Maxine de la Falaise," Liz records.

     The point is, They come. And they come. And they all come back. They find it amusing. Though it's painfully noisy. And the menu is not merely clever, it's positively psychic…a brilliant compendium of things people like to eat, anything from a sandwich or an omelet to a fancy dinner with a sticky chocolate truffle for dessert…the same à la carte menu from 11:30 A.M. to 1 A.M. every day. It was Sheldon's idea to bring in Barbara Kafka as guru. Consultant Kafka knows that deep-fried calamari are a special craving, and that sometimes nothing will do but pasta. That when you haven't the tiniest tickle of appetite you can always eat caviar -- especially tiny plops of American caviar with sour cream in a small, deep-fried new potato. Alas, the kitchen often fails to live up to the perfectionist's vision…even the simplest items may be mangled or flawed.

     Given the gloomy early returns, I'm always shocked to find something to love at Joanna. The mountain of crisp fried calamari ($7.95) is an inspired appetizer for four…even six. Penne (those over-sized macaroni) with vodka and cream ($3.95) has a hot-as-Hades kick one night. And it's not often an omelet is produced as runny inside as this one ($6.25), with squares of smoked salmon, sour cream, and dill. Crisp vegetables ($4) are graced with a fine mustardy vinaigrette. And the oysters 9$7.50) are sea-perfumed beauties from Cotuit.

     I think of paillard as food for people who don't like to eat, but the chicken paillard ($7.95) one evening was astonishingly juicy. And though the paella ($17.50) is but a Wasp-ish shade of a paella, I asked for the seafood "rare" and got sea creatures plump and fresh, just this side of sushi. That was heaven for me. Serious paella fans might be indignant.

     I'd heard raves for the fish soup ($4.25). One evening it was sludge. At a second tasting the waiter remembered to bring croutons and a pepper-hot rouille on the side, but it still wasn't to be recommended. Any restaurant longing to draw the rich and the beautiful ought to do a vegetarian plate. Joanna's ($7.25) is a B plus, but the hollandaise is a laugh. The veal chop ($18) is a pale welterweight for those of us who cut our teeth on the charred champion at Elaine's. Ribbons of eel in a rubbery spinach-and-herb gel ($3.75) made an unfortunate terrine, and the chicken-liver mousse ($3.50) was…sorry, slimy, with an odd tang. (Both are now off the menu.) And the special of the night -- inedible pellets (pretending to be eel) over noodles ($9.95) -- had to be tasted three times to be sure it was as hideous as the first two tastes indicated.

     An $8.95 chocolate sampler will tickle chocoholic tastes (three or four), perhaps more for the notion that the taste. But the deep, intense chocolate bourbon cake ($3.75) is stunning. The fruit tarts ($3), sometimes raw, mostly clumsy, are School of Mud Pie. But then most of us are here for theater.

     An everyday Wednesday, 10 P.M.: How do you make standing on line for a table look like fun? Orthodontic smiles. What a night. There's a table of tennis stars and groupies. A South American playboy. Ankle socks and ballet slippers. Vacant-faced nymphets in cotton underwear. Good-looking women dining two and two. There is an Indian squaw of a certain age in gold-lame Bermuda shorts and Navaho headband attacking the prince of backgammon. A hunk of young muscle at the bar could be auditioning for American Gigalo. And heaven only knows what the swarthy Frenchman in the beret is up to. From the far bleachers comes a sweetly doddering parade of spiffily dressed oldsters -- looking as if they haven't been out for dinner since the Colony wheezed farewell.

     Stage center, jet-stream movie mogul Spangler is plugged into a phone playing the latest Peter Allen tape. On his left sits Sheldon Haseltine himself, the reluctant host: "Outrageous…a brilliant rascal," as his landlord-silent partner lyricizes. Lights dim. The waiters sing "Happy Birthday" -- third time that night. And now…this is it…as if on cue, a sextet strolls in, all in gowns and not merely black tie but cutaways. Let them eat cake.

18 east 18th Street (675-7900)

Nuccio, A Seed of Gastronomic Puffery

     Why shouldn't a seed of gastronomic puffery germinate in the New York Times, the good gray dowager with a postmenopausal passion for gossip? And what better topsoil than John Duka's weekly fashion chitchat bordering the Times's pantheistic "Style" page?

     "The fashionable have found a new restaurant where they can have fashionably late dinner," Duka reported early this spring. "The time to go is 11:30, when you are likely to see women wearing full skirts, petticoats, camisoles and leather jackets and dining on risotto with frog's legs."

     My friend Ditsy du Plexiglas (who is practically a Cushing and was once almost married to Huntington Hartford) looks smashing in petticoats and camisole, so I wore the leather jacket I got in a trade from an amiable bruiser parking his motorcycle outside the Anvil (for my last year's Halston poncho and a gift certificate for a Georgette Klinger facial)…and off we went to check out Duka's find…Nuccio. At $7 on the meter plus the after-8 P.M. 50-cent ripoff and tip to the corner of Sixth and Houston Nuccio was indeed fashionably inconvenient.

     There was one woman in last year's purple pantsuit and a man in a burgundy sweatshirt that had been washed this year, though not ironed -- but, then it was only 10 P.M. I get anxious when I walk into a fashionable bistro and find I am the most fashionable creature there. Anyway, some devilishly handsome men welcomed us to the tiny corner storefront with its small chunk of bar, softly lit posters, bouncy stereo'd tunes and small but rather interesting menu. The fashionably late kept on arriving -- not a camisole in sight except for Ditsy's.

     Still, the frog's-leg risotto ($9.75), though not exactly the classic melt-and-crunch, was delicious, and the swordfish ($12.75), ordered "rare," was precisely that -- fresh, firm, just warm, once I'd mopped away its ridiculous sweet-and-sour sauce. A side dish of zucchini in a rich tomato sauce was the evening's triumph…after Ditsy, that is. Frutti di mare ($8.75) -- mostly squid, with bits of shrimp, celery, Italian parsley, red onion, and olive -- was crisp and beautiful, needing only flavor…salt pepper, and a dash of oil.

     Ditsy got so nervous, feeling naked in her camisole, that we had to order three desserts -- sticky hazelnut cheesecake on a soggy crumb base ($3.25); a rich custardy swamp of chocolate cake ($3.25); and a tacky, commercial version of the tartufo ($3.75), that sublime chocolate-glazed ice-cream confection that drew gastronomic pilgrims to Rome's Piazza Narvona in the dawning of our present age of excess. By the time Ditsy had her double espresso and I had drunk two singles -- it's foamy, bitter and divine -- the bill came to $87, a grim reality that, with two espressos, could keep anyone awake all night.

     The fashionable do not subway to Houston Street for lunch. Nuccio was almost deserted one lush spring day. The chef himself came out to flirt. And Ditsy dribbled a blob of his spectacular tomato sauce on her camisole. No doubt about it. The man has a way with tomato sauce. But his lasagna ($7.75) was strangely insipid. The veal francese ($10.50) committed an assortment of sins. Fat, ripe cherries and a generous hand made the fruit cup ($5.25) the dessert of choice. And that splendid espresso was magnificent on ice ($1.75).

     Our little group of seven had planned to dine unfashionably early one summer night. But, as often happens when there's an ob-gyn man in the crowd (we had four), fate forced us to be fashionable (after calling ahead to explain of course). The house was jammed, our table a tight fit, but the welcome was warm. Waiters were on the run as the music blared, and an elderly man at the bar stopped by to sell ball-point pens. Alas, our waiter was unwilling to indulge the seven desires of seven appetites (there was not a camisole or a leather jacket in our party…who can blame him?). Meekly we submitted. Two this. Two that. Whatever he said. Bread was removed, and it took a major struggle to get it back. The hot antipasto ($5.75) turned out to be a trio of clams in a salty aura of raw garlic, stuffed mushrooms, and a wedge of asparagus torta. The eggplant layered with ricotta cheese and the house's excellent tomato sauce was good but expensive ($6.25).

     Everyone wanted a taste of the pasta primavera ($7.75). Two orders were more than enough of soggy vegetables in a lackluster sauce on silken fettucine. Something was wrong in the kitchen…the pause between courses dragged painfully. But when they finally arrived, giant platters of lobster fra diavolo proved again the chef's mastery of the tomato sauce. This one, a peppery inferno with islands of bread and little bullets of whole garlic, was wonderful, even at a hefty $25 per. Shrimp nestled in a daisy of endive petals ($13.50) were bathed in a garlicky wine sauce. But a decent veal chop ($14.75) didn't deserve its clumsy cream sauce, and the chicken au vinaigre ($10.75) was cooked to petrifaction. We'd ordered at 9:20, confronted entrées at 11:05, and were not jolly enough to pay for four order of pasta, as billed, when we'd asked for just two. A protest pushed the waiter over the edge. Insults were traded. Half our group voted to withhold a tip.

     Waiting at the bar was the trio that made John Duka a prophet. A pair of long-drawn-out beauties, one mini'd in fringe, the other in chinoiserie, and a crew-cutted escort in leather. "Fania All Stars," his jacket said. Wait till I tell Ditsy. I suppose Nuccio may indeed become a fox-and-lemming feeding station.

251 Sixth Avenue at Houston Street (620-0545)