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Points Well Taken

Every city neighborhood deserves a hangout as convivial and inviting as NoHo's Five Points -- but please don't tell everyone and ruin it, okay?

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The 100 greatest actors. Twenty-eight great Beauty Buys. Ten Things I Hate About You. People love numbers with lists. No wonder the lure of NoHo's Five Points is almost Circean. Every time we went, it was busier than before. And every time I asked someone working there the contents of the quintet, I got a different answer. Either it's (a) the five-street intersection just down the block (we never could find it), (b) the name of the turn-of-the-century New York neighborhood whose inhabitants came from five impoverished Irish counties, or (c) the calling card of the sometimes murderous gang that once terrorized said neighborhood (that one sure whets the appetite).

One might assume that by now, these folks would get tired of explaining, but if anyone at Five Points minds, no one is letting on. And since so much of a restaurant's success depends on making repetition seem fresh, the illusion of spontaneity will undoubtedly prove more valuable to Five Points than any attempt to gratify list lust. Nevertheless, for those who have to have it all, here are Five Points guaranteed to make a neighborhood restaurant work:

1. Offer an atypical but agreeable destination. In less time than it takes to find a salesperson at nearby Tower Records who knows who Ella Fitzgerald is ("She did, like, show tunes?"), Five Points has become a haven for a neighborhood rushing a bit too quickly to challenge other more established 'hoods in self-satisfaction. First off, the three railroad-style rooms couldn't look more inviting if they included a swimming pool with private cabanas and free mai tais. An elevated brook runs down the center of the middle room. A mahogany bar appears to be a levitating dining table. The vaulted ceiling has strategically intriguing "black holes." And both a back proscenium arch and faux casement windows reflect a pervasive golden light that turns everyone almost as angelic as the young Terence Stamp in Teorema. Five Points is the downtown loft you're still sorry you never bought.

2. Don't "Hey big guy" me. Too many neighborhood places try too hard to be the local pub in a low-budget sixties British film. (The only one that actually pulls off that down-the-block camaraderie is the All State Cafe on West 72nd Street.) But residents, and those who wish they lived in the vicinity, rarely want a secular confessional. What they're looking for is a breezily sophisticated spot they can walk or fall into. You may not be able to put your feet up at Five Points, but I've never not kicked off my shoes there.

3. When it comes to food, give 'em what they want. Food that's solid, easy, fresh, healthy, recognizable with a couple of surprises round the edges. There's no need for chef Marc Meyer to give Mr. Boulud a run for his money tonight. If he did, the place wouldn't be as hunch-over-the-table, okay-to-talk-with-your-mouth-slightly-full as it is. Who wants to wait for conversation to end to have another spoonful of his summer onion soup with the sweet crunch of sugar-snap peas? Flatbread is fragrant with Teleme cheese and onions. A fritto misto wisely adds artichoke and fennel to the mix. And sardines, for those bone-picking few who love them, are simply, and impressively, wood-oven-grilled. A breath-checking merguez sausage is tempered by a gentle wheatberry salad; glazed quail gets tossed about by a trio of bacon, apples, and juniper; and if you like smoked mackerel, you won't even need the melon it sits atop.

Pastas, however, go flat. If only the ricotta-spinach dumplings had the body and verve of their terrific tomato-herb broth. Penne with cherry tomatoes, basil, and ricotta salata is airplane-tame, and the rigatoni with chick peas, broccoli, and crisp garlic is erratic: brash and spicy one time, gooey as Adam Sandler's bicep the next. Each of the four salads, including lobster and asparagus, and fresh tuna with caper berries, would benefit from a sparser hand with dressings.

The nightly whole roasted fish is nearly as foolproof as Barocco's. Surprisingly, the vegetarian stew may be one of the heartiest dishes on the menu. And this is a burger worth getting in a cab on a snowy night for. But every other meat dish suffers unnecessarily from overcooking. A handsome pork chop with fennel purée is five minutes past being a winner. The distinctive balance of a lamb stew with artichoke, lemon, and olives has been baked out of bounds. No one is lacking skill here. Just an oven timer. The steak is super. Obviously, cooking to order helps. And call ahead to reserve at least two coconut-chocolate-almond bars. Order just one for the table and you'll hate everyone by your second, and last, forkful.

4. Money changes everything. If you hadn't noticed, which means you must not stray far from Soup Burg, menu prices have jumped big-time. And what keeps you from being able to afford that new Zero King fridge is not the exorbitant big-ticket entrées, it's the skillful pickpocketing done by appetizers, salads, and desserts. Someone in the back office at Five Points must have a daughter moving into her first apartment. No one else would ever be that kind when pricing those categories.

5. Show me you can routinely pull off a good-food-and-fun night, and you'll see me more frequently than my cleaning person runs through paper towels. Five Points almost had me convinced they could do it. Until the last visit. It was the first time even the back room was full, and though that may be what every owner wants, two waiters sleepwalked through our room with eyes wide shut, ignoring everyone to their left and right. Two large parties seemed to overwhelm the kitchen, and judging by our dinner, the cooks were just glad to get it out, let alone get it right.

This neighborhood needs Five Points. And frankly, so does anyone who enjoys a place that fosters high spirits and good company. But new restaurants always risk abandoning their list of priorities in favor of going as fast as their new clientele prods them. The result is that they're likely to wind up on yet one more list: The Ten Restaurants I Miss Most. To those nice folks recounting all those Five Points tales, I have three words: Remember the Markham.

Five Points, 31 Great Jones Street (253-5700). Dinner only, Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to midnight. (Bar open till 2 a.m.) Appetizers, $5 to $9; entrées, $14 to $23. A.E., M., V.


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