Readers often ask how I choose the restaurants I review. Rather whimsically, I suppose. I keep a running list of what's new this season -- who's about to open; what's rumored in the works; old spots with new concepts, new chefs, a tempting new menu. "Where shall we eat tonight?" I ask myself. There are 187 candidates listed for possible dissection at this moment. So it was sheer chance -- we were invited to a late-night book launch on the edge of Chelsea -- that I wandered into the Red Cat.
Pleasant welcome. Click, goes the computer inside my head. Big pot of rosemary in the entry. Click. A little dim, but not impossible. Cozy, with classic red-barn siding running up the walls and oddly fussy lanterns that throw spiderweb reflections on the ceiling. Click. Click. Click. Eclectic crowd. No need to feel like Methuselah at the prom. Club kids and gym-pumped bods in mix-and-match duos pose beside life-etched art-world gurus with wives in gypsy dress and pals headed for the party. I spy Amy Sacco in S&M licorice knee boots, fueling before dashing off to her post at Lot 61. Click.
I've landed here with no great expectations. So, surprise. A consortium of young restaurant pros are turning out terrific food at sane prices (entrees, $15 to $24) in an agreeable spot with a mostly well-behaved crew. (I'm hoping someone will eventually coach the waiter who can't pour a glass of wine without a tattle-tale dribble.) Sure enough, the menu strikes mainly familiar chords: risotto cake, peppered tuna, pan-roasted skate, chicken with mashed potatoes, char-grilled pork chop with mushroom jus.
But someone at the stove has the touch and a passion. Imagine crusty rice cake surrounded by plump oysters, corn, and peas in a fragrant puddle of champagne cream. Or that sashimi-like tuna with pickled cauliflower and silvery fresh anchovy reclining on a tuffet of chilled potato cake. (I'm not sure how I feel about cold mashed potatoes.) Too often, pork chops are like hunky boys -- all muscle, no taste. Not this caramelized beauty with Israeli couscous and a deep-fried onion-ring crown. Chicken can be tricky, too -- rarely the triumph this one is, crusty and moist on its mashed-potato nest, with asparagus and roasted slivers of garlic. The classic musk of brown butter with capers and lemon complements perfectly cooked skate. The shell steak is respectable, too, with its ragout of shallots. A side of fries served with mustardy mayo disappears speedily, and in no time, not a trace remains of the huge tangle of tempura-battered string beans with its sweet-mustard dip.
Desserts are straightforward -- Off Broadway, not Ziegfeld Follies productions: strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, the inevitable warm chocolate cake with cappuccino ice cream, a caramelized-banana tart, citrus-custard trifle layered with tangy sorbets, and amaretti-crunch-topped lemon pudding cake that my pals love (though it's too fluffy for me). And half of Chelsea is still piling in as our foursome rushes off to salute the author, leaving behind $230 for all this plus wine, martinis, two beers, a couple of sides, tax, and tip.
Should we know these guys? Executive chef-owner Jimmy Bradley, fourth American-born generation of the Pio Cesare wine family in Alba, and his managing partner, Daniel Abrams, have skated around the restaurant world for years. Abrams, literally. He broke into the business on the roller-skating wait staff at the Saloon, opened Wildlife on Amsterdam in l991, then Live Psychic, Vermouth, and Prohibition. Abrams was a partner at Citrus, where Bradley consulted. A youthful career cooking in Rhode Island and on Martha's Vineyard had led Bradley to the kitchen of Flowers and then Bryant Park Grill. In overseas jaunts between jobs, the chef says he found restaurants named Black Cat and Red Cat everywhere. "The black cat is mysterious," he reasons. "The red cat is more approachable." And so it is. The Red Cat has quickly claimed the former Zucca space as if it's lived there forever. That's how I feel here, too.
The Red Cat, 227 Tenth Avenue, near 23rd Street (242-1122). Dinner only, Monday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight. (Lunch is scheduled to begin next week.) A.E., M.C., V.