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Odeon and On

Why contend with the schlock of the new? The Odeon and La Luncheonette, nearly 30 years of bistro experience between them, have only gotten better with age.

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The year is only two weeks old, and you’ve already bummed three Camels, skipped the gym twice, had sex with your ex, used your cell phone not only at the table but while walking past two sets of phone booths, and been suckered yet again by film critics into suffering through another Alan Rudolph film (loving Julie Christie is no excuse). Are there any resolutions you haven’t left in tatters?

Willing to belatedly take one on that might be easier to keep? Promise yourself you will no longer swallow the baloney that everything hip has to be new.

Want proof? Let’s consider your travails as a dutiful foodist. You’ve already gone hoarse and deaf at Rialto, discovered at 147 that there is such a thing as an inedible dessert, and willingly allowed strangers to eavesdrop on your intimacies by sitting at Asia de Cuba’s “family table.” Why not enter a domain with a style and grace that all of the above can only aspire to? A restaurant as urbane at 8 p.m. as it is at midnight, serving food that’s meant to be enjoyed instead of comprehended, where there are no velvet ropes and no I’m-so-fabulous-I’m-like-this-with-Uma-and-Ethan maître d’. A place so flatteringly lit that if you don’t look good there, you should quietly excuse yourself, go home, and lie down.

The only obstacle you have to get past is that the Odeon is seventeen years old, which means your parents may have been there and done this while your baby-sitter was teaching you how to Etch-a-Sketch.

In October of 1980, the Odeon opened, establishing itself as the blueprint for almost every grand bistro that ever plopped a scallop on a kiwi slice. It also spawned the McNally-Wagenknecht dynasty that produced both bloodline crown princes (Cafe Luxembourg, Indochine, Nell’s, Lucky Strike, the infamous 150 Wooster, Bodega, E&O, Pravda, Balthazar), as well as stylish bastards (Match, the Kiosk, the Independent -- started by former employees) in almost every corner of the city.

The Odeon could well have ossified into a double-decker bus port of call like the Oyster Bar, or ended up tapeworming off the circumspect routines of its charter clientele like Elaine’s, or, worst of all, vamped into some El Teddyesque retro lair that gets periodically reborn for the next generation wearing white go-go boots. But the Odeon just stayed cool (albeit with a few brief fading spells). Instead of familiarity breeding contempt, the Odeon’s deliberate rhythms remain its lure.

By cannily restraining its kitchen from overreaching and its wait staff from ever behaving as if they’re “on the list,” the Odeon has nurtured a rare balance, affording its core clientele trustworthy snugness while offering newcomers inclusiveness. Only Raoul’s and Barocco can match its confident manner and customer loyalty.

Not surprisingly, all three places have made minimal changes to their décors and menus. In fact, except for a patina of age that has added a touch of romanticism to its sleek, Brassai-set curvaceousness, Odeon looks exactly the way it did when it introduced its country salad, cassoulet, steak frites, and lemon tart. Surprisingly, three out of the four dishes taste the same. There’s no secret, really. Odeon opened with chef Patrick Clark when nouvelle was nouveau. After Clark left both here and Cafe Luxembourg, Tony Shek, the latter’s sous-chef, was placed in charge on upper Broadway and developed into one of the most underrated chefs in town. He quit Luxembourg last year, to its detriment. When the dependable Stephen Lyle left Odeon’s kitchen to open the Independent, the house treaded water for a while, until Lynn Wagenknecht (now the sole owner) cajoled Shek into coming on board and steering Odeon back on course.

This is bistro food. Satiating, not startling. Shek’s beet salad with endive and walnuts has just the right smack of sweet-cider vinegar. Cracklingly tender, greaseless fried calamari get dipped in a tomato chipotle sauce that bears no resemblance to anything Shoney’s serves with shrimp cocktail. The only thing missing from the soups -- white bean and escarole, and butternut squash -- is a fireplace to eat them in front of. The mignonette sauce is a kick even to a fresh oyster, and a miso wasabi vinaigrette supplies the same to seared scallops. The paté could use a love tap, though, and the grilled portobellos, though meaty, are tired. Crab cake, and arugula, fennel, and parmesan salad, however, are as dependable as the bar’s Cosmopolitans.

The house’s strength has always been its entrées. Fish and red meat are virtually mistake-proof. Tuna arrives handsomely seared and matched with red-pepper vinaigrette. Relish the moist, roast cod best by mashing it into the garlic-and-chive mashed potatoes. Sautéed sea bass has a welcome pale thyme sauce and a soothing parsnip purée alongside. Pity those who’ve never taken to liver. With leeks, currants, and cranberries, it’s such a treat. Steak and its frites are faultless. Chicken and poussin in any variation are just fine. Though the caramelized ginger glaze is yum, ask for the duck undercooked. Pasta still tastes like an afterthought. Desserts are competent but rarely memorable.

Two hallmarks of the Odeon, though, need immediate attention. Its cassoulet, one of the few things that can make winter bearable in New York, has turned mushy, bland, and stingy with the good stuff. Too many crumbs and beans, and not enough tomato, spice, and meat. And though, granted, it’s a long workday’s journey into late night for this staff (especially since the terrazzo floors are a killer on the feet), the crew gets a little woozy after midnight. This is a problem -- it’s not as if there’s no one in the place except you and me. Ever.

The Odeon is a landmark New Yorkers should never cede to tourists. As for those of you heat-seeking missiles out there, you can bet your favorite Prada trench that the Odeon will simmer just as it is long after Asia de Cuba has given over its wee hours to lounge nites. Should you be hesitant merely because you’re late to the party, the following will help instill confidence. All Odeon regulars know that only one of each of the double doors at the entrance is ever open. Look for the ones with the push-pull decal. Now yank and make your entrance. See how consistency can make you look hip? And you thought you needed to be in cashmere thermal.

The Odeon, 145 West Broadway, at Thomas St. Open Monday through Thursday, noon to 2 a.m., Sunday from 11:30 a.m., Friday and Saturday, noon to 3 a.m., Saturday and Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Appetizers, $6-$10.50; entrées, $14-$24.50. (Brasserie menu after midnight.) All major credit cards.

Hipness is not the only thing lacking in those gotta-get-there restaurants: They also rarely feel idyllic. Name two new boîtes that make you want to whisper something more deeply felt than “Whose card are we putting this on?” Add this to the sad fact that there is a dearth of romantic restaurants in Manhattan that don’t require pawning a Breitling and you understand why a satisfying Valentine’s Day reservation is tougher to obtain than a smile from a Duane Reade cashier.

Try looking where you least expect it. On a tree-forsaken, wind-blasted corner surrounded by nothing, La Lunchonette is an inviting oasis -- walking in there is like having someone put two warm hands on your cheeks. Snug as a chenille afghan, this agreeably ramshackle room makes you want to hunch your shoulders and huddle a little closer. It could be the sparks that fly between Jean-François Fraysse, the chef, and his wife, Melva Max (a former Odeon waitress, by the way), who own the place together. It’s best to go when at least one of them is around, not only for their warmth and kindness but also because the service suffers drastically when they’re absent. Unfortunately, she’s not there as much anymore because their two kids demand more time.

Allow the food to dispel your chills -- the thick, soothing lobster bisque, the aromatic fennel soup, or a terrine of foie gras that glides down your throat like velvet across a smooth back. It’s difficult to overstate the succulence of lusciously tender sea scallops in a fragrant herb-and-lillet sauce or the yin-yang of dense, gamy duck confit tossed against crisp greens. There is a wondrous cassoulet deep and rich as your daydreams; a rack of lamb that tempts you to suck the juices out of its bones; a muskily sweet venison brightened by quince; hearty, meaty rabbit in a sauce dark as sable and sparkling with glazed prunes; skate in capers and lemon that gleams like mother of pearl; and a tuna that, like a temptress who understands perfume, knows exactly how much aroma of pernod and fennel to exude.

Can Jean-François make you forget the cold completely? With his 9 1/2 Weeks-worthy chocolate cake, a crème caramel even blasé lunch ladies would covet, salaciously rich profiteroles, and the most superb tarte tatin, the man’s offering all the aphrodisia he’s allowed by law. The self-trained chef cooks only what he knows, and he’s been doing so for more than a decade. Some of you may think that is very unhip. Fine. You go to Torch on überhip Ludlow Street. Oh, and take a hat. It’s always cold on Ludlow Street, especially when you’re waiting behind a rope to get in.

La Lunchonette, 130 Tenth Avenue, at 18th St. Open Sunday through Thursday, noon to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight. Appetizers, $4.50-$10.50; entrées, $10.50-$21. All major credit cards.


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