September 30, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Buttering Up in Alphabet City: Lavagna and Oda House

Lavagna’s monkfish was just a tad overcooked but I like the arugula salad on top.
Lavagna’s monkfish was just a tad overcooked but I like the arugula salad on top.

           I don’t often take the time to tell you about some buzzy little spot that doesn’t work out for me. I figure it will either find an audience or it won’t and no need to squash it with an ax. I’m more eager to stumble into an unsung spot and let you know how good it is early, before a rave in the Times means none of us can get a table except at the nursery dinner hour.

It was a rare spring-like night in August, perfect for sitting on the edge of the sidewalk.

           Between what I write and what you read, I am on the prowl six nights a week.  Sometimes a place is good for the neighborhood -- like small and cozy Lavagna Trattoria Italiana in Alphabet City. There we sat at a table next to the sidewalk on a perfect night – it felt like early spring, so rare after the chills and steam of summer. 

Romantic pin lights and grownup servers make this spot a haven in raffish Alphabet City.

           Romantic pin lights and grownup servers added to the sense of promise, as did the Michelin crossed knife and fork for “comfort, décor and service.” A rave from fussy uptown friends venturing on foreign turf had brought me there.

I would come once a month for this crisp-edged pizzetta if this were my neighborhood.

           Especially good bread followed by a knockout pizzetta del bosco on a remarkably thin cracker crisp crust primed my excitement. But then a listless carpaccio of octopus with too much lemon and no olive oil made me think I should have taken my guests, come all the way from New Jersey, to a favorite haunt rather than a reviewing dinner. Good enough sweet green pea ravioli, a monolithic pork chop that could have been juicier and roasted portobellos atop monkfish on a green olive vinaigrette did not quite balance out the disappointing octopus and slight overcooking of the fish.  At that point, a modest blueberry crostata could not elevate the evening. 

Something was missing on the octopus carpaccio – not enough olive oil or pepperoncini.

           Given the gentle prices – antipasti and salads $8 to $14, pastas and entrées $14 to $27 and a $34 prix fixe from 6 to 7 pm nightly -- I can understand why Lavagna gleams as a rare cocoon among the raffish cubbyholes of the neighborhood. I’d say it’s not worth the round trip from Zabar’s country for me.

545 East 5th between Avenues A and B. 212 979 1005. Monday through Thursday 6 to 11 pm. Friday 6pm to midnight. Saturday and Sunday noon to midnight.


Georgian On My Mind

Surely a bite of Georgian adjaruli bread must be 1000 calories, but you only live once.

           As I got up from the table at Lavagna to search for a cab, I noticed the restaurant next door on the corner of Avenue B was Oda House, familiar as the scene of some ecstatic excess just a week earlier. I smiled. Oda had definitely been worth the outrageous taxi tab.

It’s just boiled beef but if you need a solid sour cream fix, this is it.

           My weekend restaurant cronies had suddenly become ravenous to explore Georgian cooking after meeting a Turkish woman from a city north of Istanbul near the Georgian border. As soon as she said the word Georgia, I thought: Yes. It must have a cuisine. The obsessed Ethnic Junkie in our adventurous posse did the research. He chose Oda because it did not involve bridges. He’d even stopped by for a pre-tasting the evening before and now guided the order.

Once we got her attention, our server was charming and confessional.

           We’d come on a bustling Saturday night. The staff rushed about, trying to look like a team instead of a duo. Waiters could barely sidle between close-packed tables in the modest storefront. Even the chef emerged from the kitchen delivering casseroles and platters. I looked around to see what people were eating, analyzing faces. Yes, many homesick Slavs, I thought.

Warm up to start with a trio of salads – eggplant, spinach and leeek – in walnut sauce.

           The white wine was severe. I tried a red. It was live music night, one of my least favorite restaurant diversions. I was feeling doubtful and abandoned as no one seemed interested in our hunger. So I quickly fell for comfort on the three little hills of the pkhali trio as it hit the table – eggplant, spinach and leeks laced with walnut sauce, Georgian spicing and pomegranate seeds. At least we would not faint from hunger. 

Boiled livers and gizzards with greens proved to be wildly oversalted.

           I can’t say I was moved by a salad of boiled beef slices with cucumber, prunes, cherry and tomatoes, with dabs of sour cream and mustard. Perhaps it was too familiar, unlike kuchmachi – boiled chicken livers and gizzards with a walnut sauce.  Alas that was way too salty and we sent it back.

Don’t drop a Georgian dumpling on your foot. And don't let that juice escape.

           “Not your average dumplings,” the menu warned, or maybe boasted, about the khinkali. “I’m not recommending them,” the Ethnic Junkie dodged. He was outvoted and we tackled the three giant bundles – a blowup resembling Shanghai soupy buns, filled with beef-and-pork meat mince. Our server, a force of nature financing her acting dreams, suggested we lift the monolith by the inedible tucked-up top, and savor the enclosed juices without breaking the dough. Even as she spoke, I was cutting mine in two and watching the nectar dribble away.

If I hadn’t  overdosed on adjaruli bread, I could have devoured this gentle cheese pie.

           But that’s okay, I was already totally hooked by the Georgian hot bread called adjaruli, where feta and mozzarella cheese are combined with butter and a poached egg into a pocket in a long fat loaf.  You smash the egg, stir it all together, then tear off pieces of the hot bread to scoop up the smoosh. OMG. Yes. I knew that every bite was 1000 calories but I could not stop. It helped that the delicious pizza-like megruli made with yogurt in the dough was a shade less compelling. 

The fine Oda House special with sour cream in phyllo layers came after too much excess.

           If I’d been in charge, I would probably have insisted on tasting all the Georgian bread dishes, but I had let the busboy cart away the last of the adjaruli to make room for the Oda house special – grilled chicken livers, shockingly not over-cooked, with a sour cream cheese sauce baked in phyllo. It seems the chef, Maia Acquavia, was a plastic surgeon in Georgia, before shifting the focus of her knive work.  All to the good.

           Salmon, slow-cooked lamb and roast chicken are on the menu too – “Main Courses” from $14 to $20 -- but you don’t have to go to Georgia or Avenue B for them. We were trapped now by the drama and emotion of the singer Mariami and the guitarist alongside.

Pelamushi is a jellied Georgian jewel with chocolate sauce and candied nuts.

           That forced us to linger for dessert: Pahlava with nuts and honey, sounds like baklava but can’t compete with most middle eastern versions I’ve encountered. The uniquely Georgian Pelamushi proved to be a jellied tower of grape juice, corn and wheat flour, dribbled with chocolate sauce and piled with candied walnuts.  It was, shall I say, interesting, oddly delicious.

76 Avenue B corner of East Fifth Street. 212 353 3838. Monday through Friday noon to midnight. Saturday and Sunday 11 am to midnight.


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All right reserved.

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