All sorts of smart and eccentric little shops are waking up Stanton and Ludlow Streets, but no one I know has been haunting the Lower East Side for even a junior epiphany at dinner. Still, I cannot resist the lure of a Jean-Georges sapling. We drive past Katz's Deli on Houston down a dismal stretch of Clinton looking for a stainless-steel façade. "There's no sign," we've been warned. There it is, just past the pack of rowdies standing in front of the First Choice Barber Shop, across from La Nueva Mini Market. It's 71 Clinton Fresh Food -- a solitary oasis of gentrification. It feels like nowheresville to me, but to Vongerichten apostle Wylie Dufresne, it's like coming home. He grew up in the East Village. "I'm two blocks from my high school," he marvels. And his dad, Dewey -- he's the grown-up schmoozing guests -- lives around the corner. He and one of his landlords are partners here.
There are only 30 seats (the two next to the door come with an apology), and the neighborhood, thrilled to have uptown ambition at such modest prices, keeps them turning. Behind the bar is Che Guevera (long black curlicues of hair, not quite sideburns, not quite Hasidic curls) mixing drinks and dispensing fabulous passion-fruit rum punch. For the moment, all wines come by the glass (with directions for what complements which dish), and there seem to be almost as many servers as customers. Essential, says the chef. "We have no heat lamps, and we need to rush the food to the table." That's why dishes arrive one or two at a time.
To spy Wylie with his lone sous-chef through the pass-through is to admire their high-wire act even more. Starters can be a bit skimpy, as is the grilled-octopus confit with quinoa and the foie gras lump inside its apple ring, but most everything is delicious, if not amazing at these prices (entrées, $14 to $20). Rustic braised rabbit on poppy-seed tagliatelle, the tangy bits of Scottish salmon exquisitely cocooned in avocado slices, and a fragrant hill of brilliantly dressed baby leaves and herbs with chunks of fig and Parmesan shards are my three favorites.
Our waiter sashays by, tossing his ponytail as if he were Little Miss America, and stops to inquire, "How are the flavors?" It's an admirably original substitute for the annoying "How's everything?" The answer is "exciting." Especially the remarkable black sea bass crusted with a crunch of edamame and rye-bread crumbs on chive mashed potatoes, the seared scallops on black-olive risotto cake, and the beer-braised short ribs paired with hanger steak. Wylie is a happy camper now, but it will be a challenge to keep him downtown on the farm, once the big-time talent scouts come sniffing around.
Desserts are a letdown. At the next table, three friends share an order of Stilton and Bosc-pear terrine that should lose its weird black-pepper caramel. Indeed, Stilton and pear not wrapped around each other might be even better. It's getting late, but as they leave, another trio settles in beside us -- boys from the 'hood, one in a fedora, the other in a porkpie, rubbing his hands in anticipation. Grateful to spy an empty taxi, we rush outside. He refuses to take four and drives off with Dufresne senior racing after. "I'll get his number," he cries. Fresh food. Fresh service.
71 Clinton Fresh Food, 71 Clinton Street (212-614 6960). Dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:45 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11:45 p.m. A.E. (Mastercard and Visa will be added soon.)