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January 6th, 2005

Eatery Exploration

by Abbey Ehmann

100 West Houston

In the few years that Jane has been in business, it has received positive reviews from numerous in-the-know publications. They all referred to the curse that had seemed to hang over the Houston Street space; it appears the curse has lifted, judging by Jane’s success. They also noted that the restaurant has a warm, “neighborhood” vibe, and that is certainly true. We stopped in on a late Sunday afternoon and had the luxury of choosing between the brunch/lunch and dinner menus. It was a warm fall day, so we luxuriated in the setting sun and sidewalk traffic while we enjoyed our “linner” at one of their three outdoor tables. My date ordered the three mushroom soup, which was incredibly delicious. Little bits of those three different fungi were chopped finely, rather than completely pur?╔└▄ed, giving the soup a pleasant consistency. Plenty of cream and truffle oil made it rich and buttery; we could’ve spooned a bucketful of the stuff into our hungry bellies!

For my main course I decided on the burger, which at $12 sounded fairly substantial. It came with melted cheese, caramelized onions, green and red tomatoes and a special sauce that you’ll find separates it from other bland burgers. It didn’t even require ketchup, which, for me, is saying a lot. The side of fries was a heaping pile of hot, salty little strips that would’ve made a good meal by themselves. Okay, a snack. We indulged in a few side orders: the spicy broccoli was, indeed, spicy, tasting like something from General Cho’s kitchen. And the smashed Yukon gold were mashed potatoes with a subtle, unusual lemon and mint flavoring that we’d never encountered before.

The staff was equal parts helpful and polite, and they all looked oddly familiar, causing me to believe they’d all been working long enough to know how to do their jobs well. It’s odd how rare that is in “neighborhood” restaurants where they aren’t charging you $100 for a meal. Brunch is served on weekends from 11 till 4 and runs from $12 for the granola to $16 for steak and eggs. If I’d had a hangover, I might’ve chosen the country breakfast, which includes grits, eggs, bangers, biscuit and gravy. Hair of the dog is included with brunch, so keep that in mind. Dinner could’ve been salmon, scallops, fish or steak ranging from $13 to $26, with more appealing side dishes available. If I were a martini drinker, I might’ve sipped their Dirty Jane: Ketel One, pickled green tomato and pickle juice. Instead, I finished my meal with a lemonade and watermelon juice with sprigs of mint. Mmm, just the way to watch a sunset.

The Cupping Room Caf?╔└▄
359 West Broadway at Broome

Between the soothing jazz and the late August half-full dining room, it was an oasis that I would never have expected in SoHo. Which allowed me to really enjoy the food. Assorted flat breads were served with an olive tapanade and diced tomatoes and you can choose from a decent wine list while you wait for your meal. I went with the prix fix three-course dinner, which is offered on Monday and Tuesday nights for $15.95 and includes appetizer, main course and desert. My husband started with the gazpacho, which was colorful and spicy, striking just the right balance between vegetables and cool broth. My appetizer was a bowl of cream of broccoli soup, which was tasty. While my husband crunched through a bococcino sandwich of mozzarella, tomato, arugula and balsamic vinegar, with a side of new potato salad, I savored the five cheese ravioli. I was a bit aprehensive when it arrived, fearing the serving was somewhat paltry, but there turned out to be lots of little pasta dumplings hiding in the bowl and they were surprisingly meaty. There was ample, delightfully fresh marinara sauce, to drag my raviolis around in.

Desert with the prix fix was a homemade brownie and ice cream, served with a drizzle of chocolate. It was warm and moist, and nothing could stop me from slurping up every bite. Our waitress was friendly and efficient, if seemingly new to the restaurant…or perhaps waitressing in general. It’s definitely a neighborhood place, with a mellow vibe that no doubt appeals to Soho residents looking for a pleasant meal as well as tourists eager to see and be seen. Their weekday happy hour runs from 5:30 to 7:30 and they have live music on Wednesdays and Fridays. Breakfast begins at 7:30 am, lunch at noon and dinner from 6:00 on. Though the sound of their 8:00 am “power brunch” doesn’t appeal to me, I’m sure the people who’ve lived in the area forever are grateful for an opportunity to brunch before the mobs descend. Cupping Room invites you to call for weekly promotions, or check their web site.

Dos Caminos
475 West Broadway & Houston

While strolling around Soho, it’s tempting to stop into every store and drink in every bistro. When the weather is beautiful, those restaurants with tables outside or wall-sized doors are especially difficult to resist. That has always been the allure of the space on the corner of West Broadway and Houston, which recently underwent yet another reincarnation. It is now Dos Caminos, a southern outpost of the original Park Avenue at 27th Street restaurant. When all other Soho spots are sparse and slow, this place is bustling. On a sunny Sunday afternoon it was a respite for tired shoppers. And on a warm Monday evening it was buzzing with scrubbed young professionals. We stopped in to check the place out, see if they gave any attitude and discover what the attraction was-other than those al fresco opportunities and, of course, all those attractive folks.

The interior renovation has resulted in an airy, high-ceilinged dining room and a spacious bar. The cuisine is Mexican, the bar stars a zillion brands of tequila and there is no way you’ll get out of the place without ordering a side of their whipped-up-to-your-taste guacamole. Stone mortar bowls buzz by you, accompanied by crispy chips, and once you hear that you can choose mild, medium or hot, you know you’re gonna be in for a treat. We opted for medium and still had sweat beading on our brows. Beware the hot! The bowl amply accommodated two of us and it was muy bueno! We chose the special prickly pear margarita, which was fruity and tangy and yummy, to accompany our chips and guac. It would make the perfect rest stop snack or a wonderful prelude to what appeared to be healthy portions of nuevo Mexican fare. Plus, the people watching was wonderful. Yes, there is an equally healthy serving of “the beautiful people,” but there is no attitude. At least none from the employees. Our helpful and knowledgeable bartender said that the staff wasn’t “model types,” though the hostess was willowy and gorgeous. He admitted that weeknights are abuzz with attractive, moneyed urban professionals who disappear to their Hampton’s Homes on weekends, when their Long Island and New Jersey equals show up, eager to make the Manhattan scene. And no one seems to notice that there are no celebrities sitting beside them, just more regular folks looking for a fun night out.

Boca Chica
13 First Avenue at First Street

Regardless of the restaurant, it’s pretty tough to compete with my personal favorite, Boca Chica. We’ve decided to include it here in case you folks are inclined to feast a bit further east than Mulberry Street, perhaps in the East Village. Boca Chica has been here for years. Owned by the same woman who runs my favorite Soho restaurant, Lupe’s East LA Kitchen, it features a menu of Latino-Cuban-Mexican deliciousness and there’s almost always a wait to partake. I recommend you go early, when there isn’t a crowd of neighborhood locals in line with hipsters and tourists from uptown and before the multo festivo music kicks into high decibels.

When you finally get yourself a seat, you’ll immediately be treated to a plate of fried plantain chips and yummy black bean dip. Like everything else here, there’s a tang of lime. You can sip some more of that citrus tang with a Caparaina, the unofficial house drink that brought in the pioneer drinkers when the place first opened about 10 years ago. We usually wind up slurping down a few margaritas, which are properly strong and sour. I am such a creature of habit that I order the same thing every time I dine here. I begin with the shrimp quesadillas, a couple of small flour tortillas folded around melted cheese, avocado, chiles and succulent shrimp. My mouth waters at the mere thought! My date always orders the same thing, too, starting with the croquetas de platanos (plantain croquettes), described as green plantain balls with onion vinaigrette, which loses sooo very much in the translation. These creamy, crispy little balls have just the right consistency and all four of them are satisfyingly filling, but it’s that onion vinaigrette which keeps my husband coming back. It’s a mix of onion and cucumber and unidentifiable spices that he swears he’ll someday discover so he can spread it onto everything he eats.

For a main course, I almost always go with the fish special, which entails a large, spicy slab of grilled fish surrounded by the house’s special sides: rice, black beans, shredded cabbage salad and mashed sweet potatoes. Oh, that all sounds terribly dull! Let me tell you, it’s anything but! The combination of crunchy cabbage sprinkled with lime and creamy mashed sweet potatoes, offset by the rice and beans, makes for a most memorable experience for your mouth. Crispy fish rubbed with spices nestled in the midst of all this is more than I can bear, and inspires me to all but lick my plate clean.

We celebrate special occasions here: birthdays and anniversaries, even nights we’re just feeling festive. It’s a boisterous spot, so celebrations make sense. We’ve never indulged in dessert, mostly because we’re usually too stuffed, but the flan looks like the real deal. And I’m sure the coffee is good and strong too, but why sober up? Instead, wobble out of Boca Chica and enjoy the walk home, however long it may be.

Appetizer prices range from $5.50 to $8.95 and main dishes of seafood, meat, vegetarian or chicken, range from $8.50 for the plato diario (rice, beans and salad with sliced avocado) to $17.25 for the skirt steak. Those jumbo margaritas will run you $7 a piece.

Abby Ehmann

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York





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