April 26, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable
Blue Ribbon: The Comfort of PuPu
Can the childhood comfort foods of the fifties nurture us through the traumas of the nineties? Yes, says the crowd at Blue Ribbon, where it’s the new something-for-everyone philosophy, a jumble of every adolescent and yuppish craving-- as my guest observes, “elegant cafeteria food except you don’t have to stand in line.”
But most nights you do. When Eric Bromberg abandoned the range at Nick and EddieLINK and moved across the street to launch the Crystal Room, he failed to touch the nerve. Now, in the same compact space, with a witty menu jumble and no-frills look (painted brick, framed mirrors, a few blessedly murky canvases), neighbors muster-- tonight, remarkably tall men and beautiful young women dressed for everything from prom to an S&M fantasy.
And so this stretch of Sullivan burns its candle at both ends, a hangout for restaurant folk after hours; the French up the street at Jean-Claude, Americans here, often sharing the stunning tiered shellfish “plateau”-- oysters, clams, spicy boiled shrimp, half a lobster, crab, and peppery crawfish with a feverish mayonnaise--at $38, the perfect late-night supper for two or three or four. What brings the cooks’ clan here? Could be the mood food, could be just that the joint’s open till 4 A.M. (“You can order at 3:59,” our waiter boasts).
Where else do you find cheese fondue these days? This stringy melt bubbles away on its brazier, with bacon bits as an additional add-on, great breadsticks and crusty chunks to dip. Indulge in a worldly notion, marrow with savory oxtail marmalade and fried parsley, to spread on toasted challah. Or play at the pu pu. It varies: tonight, mini-egg rolls, pirogies, sesame shrimp on a skewer, meaty baby-back ribs, potato pancakes with apple and leek, and delicious chicken wings ($8 per person; a pu pu for three makes a starter for five or six if you’re friendly).
We stopped by early on and loved the pu pu (did the chef throw on venison chops because somebody recognized a chance for fame and accolades?). But most everything else disappointed. Returning now, we find that the kitchen has hit a fine stride. Prices are higher, alas (entrées up to $24), but with so many cheaper options-- hamburger deluxe, ($7.50), massive “open-face turkey” ($12.50), clam stew ($12)-- and reasonably priced wines plus all sorts of beer, one can spend a lot or a little, clearly a factor in the house’s charm.
Four could easily divide the giant Basque paella (note the savory chicken sausage) without a sense of deprivation. First-rate lamb chops, four of them, come with spinach and a cake of buttery mashed potatoes under a fried-potato roof. Fried chicken is both moist and crisp. The chewy rib steak is almost hidden under a hill of mashed squash with a thatch of fried-potato threads. A balanced citric sweetness envelops somewhat fatty but luscious duck and its wild rice. Sweetbreads and mahi mahi both get a life from being tossed in salads--the first arugula, wild mushrooms, and baked shallot, the second thin slices of fennel and endive in an orange-balsamic vinaigrette. There are still trip-ups and misunderstandings -- oysters lost in their matzah meal batter on lemon-bitter spinach, slightly stringy skate overwhelmed by the bite of lemon segments in an otherwise pleasant toss of cabbage, capers, and brown butter. But what a joy, summer corn (well, it’s harvest time in Chile) and chunks of buttery garlic-herb bread with the clam stew--a mammoth, rather blah portion in an earthenware crock, needing salt and pepper.
Four decades on the hit parade inspire dessert--a noncommittal cheesecake, marvelous chocolate Bruno (a cakey mousse on white chocolate with ice cream and chocolate dribbles), a stingily crusted crème brûlée, and a banana split designed to tame the cravings of the child that still lives within you, plus at least three chums. (Reservations for six or more only.)
Blue Ribbon, 97 Sullivan Street, near Spring Street (274-0404).
Out of Our League at High Life
We know when we’re out of our league. We don’t belong at Mortimer’s. We’ll never get a power booth in the Four Seasons Grill at lunch. And we’re in dangerous territory tonight at Hi-Life, where we are clearly the only folks over 26. “Omigosh. It’s your daughter,” I cry to my guest, spotting my favorite trend-sniffing princess of the night. Now I know we’ve struck gold. And we’re trespassing for sure.
It’s not that we’re O-L-D (I loathe those three-letter words: A-G-E, F-A-T). We’re still alive enough to dig (D-I-G--did I really say that?) the neon martini iconography, the mesmerizing fish in the tank at the door, the message of the restless queue on the sidewalk, this fabulous fake-vintage-forties lounge with its antique accessories.
Owner Earl Greer has a crush on dingy old-time bar-lounges, so that’s what Haverson/Rockwell gave him when he decided to export his Amsterdam Avenue hit to the Upper East Side. There’s a curve of green tufted leather along the bar where yearlings josh and nuzzle and eye one another hungrily. Pressed-stainless-steel walls and a bright blue sailfish lead to the back room with its half-moon booths, the famous print of dogs playing cards blow up on a screen, a golden glow from fixtures salvaged from the ocean liner Coronia (by way of One Fifth Avenue), and funny lamps scavenged by David Rockwell on Atlantic Avenue.
Except for the padded leather walls (with hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades outlined in studs), there’s no buffer at all for the raucous din -- “They’re not really hockey players,” says Greer, “they just act like hockey players.” We’re shouting to communicate. But in the playpen around us, parties of five or six or eight shout and guffaw, seemingly unperturbed. “Their anatomies are different.” It’s a mutation born of disco, rock, emotional insecurity, and designers’ fear of acoustical tile.
As for the food--the soggy sushi, the fatty lamb ribs, the tasteless fried zucchini-- that’s not why they’re here. Still, you’ll notice a familiar theme: everything but the kitchen sink. Hi-Life doesn’t merely imitate Blue Ribbon, it has hired Eric Bromberg himself to help create the menu: pop food classified as “Small Plates,” “Small Bowls,” “Big Plates,” and “Big Bowls,” with shellfish from the raw bar and sushi “prepared by a first-class sushi chef” (he must have been out fishing the night we ordered the Hi-Life roll). Cheese fondue, fried chicken in a basket, turkey burger deluxe, banana split…sound familiar?
By this paragraph, you know whether Hi-Life is in the cards for you. Go, then, knowing you’ll find decent steamed dumplings (with chopsticks), classic nachos for junk-food junkies, bacon-and-Cheddar-stuffed potato skins, plump and spicy chicken wings, surprisingly good bow ties (with prosciutto, peas, and Parmesan in a light tomato cream), and equally good penne with grilled chicken (plus peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and broccoli in a similar sauce). Fried chicken in a basket is better than edible, too (mashed potatoes and spinach come on the side). (Entrées $6.50 to $16).
And whether you’re living your childhood or reliving it, chocolate mud pie, warm apple crumb, and that irresistible banana split can blur the sharp edges of reality.
Hi-Life Restaurant & Lounge, 1340 First Avenue, at 72nd Street