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Local Hero

With its easygoing atmosphere and simple but satisfying Asian fare, Chow Bar is that rarest of birds, a perfect little neighborhood joint. So I'm begging you, please don't go there.

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Ever do something you think is going to work out great until it explodes in your face and everyone curses your name and hates your guts? Like introducing two friends who you think are perfect for each other, only to watch a perfectly horrible relationship develop? Or throwing your boss a surprise 65th-birthday party, not knowing Human Resources has him down as 60 because he's trying to avoid mandatory retirement?

Well, I'm not sure if I'm doing the right thing here, either. The native in me is pleading not to write this. But the journalist is too self-congratulatory and a better typist. So, to assuage potential guilt, I beg you to acknowledge that what you are about to read requires a certain civic responsibility on your part if this is to prove beneficial to anybody. For this concerns that now fragile urban concept called neighborhood. Fragile not only because you pass a Starbucks, Duane Reade, Food Emporium, Gap Kids, and Barnes & Noble with each meter click in a cab but because even specialty stores that formerly marked a district as a destination, like Citarella, Gracious Home, Ecce Panis, and Prada, are now reproducing with bunny lust.

About the only establishment that still distinguishes one part of town from another is the local restaurant, that place that's better than a coffee shop but doesn't ask you to dress any better for it. A low-lit "Hey, Mike!" kind of joint you immediately warm to though it's not really all that comfortable (having been built on a shoestring), with a short, quirky menu containing at least four things worth loving that you can afford without berating yourself for not cooking. Best of all, it's somewhere you can walk to, and walk into, even solo, knowing you'll see people you know and never feel strange or alone.

The sign over Chow Bar is actually a banner, not even affixed permanently to the façade, as if the management -- aware that this corner had been home to Joe's, Formerly Joe's, and Joe's Again -- was hedging bets about whether the West Village would ever accept an eatery in this spot without the guy's name over the door. Inside, it's the first time the room doesn't look like a pizzeria, which is a good thing, since the cuisine is Asian. The décor is a maze of right angles accented by uplighting, gold Buddhas, red lanterns, and black calligraphy. It looks cheap and fun, as if someone at a women's college in the fifties had made a home for the mah-jongg club. The seating, however, is devastating. Even a Shaker couldn't maintain stillness on these pews of penance. Perhaps the management is looking for quick turnover. And that just may happen, because the food at Chow Bar is real easy to chow down.

One of chef Peter Klein's previous ports of call was China Grill, before that kitchen became the salt capital of the world. Happily, many of Klein's dishes are reminiscent of the spry originality that fostered the Grill's initial success. Summer rolls of tuna and papaya are smacked with mint. The sweetness of his spareribs is tempered by toasted sesame. Crab rolls are spiked with red chili in cucumber sauce. Shrimp dumplings distinguish themselves from the rest of the genre thanks to a healthy dash of red pepper added to miso. Excellent ginger chicken has Thai chili peppers to blame for inciting that second round of chilled Ohtouka sake. And the dark, spunky bite of delicious wok-roasted baby clams is due to the firm of sake, scallion & cilantro.

Only with vegetables and fowl does Klein's reliance on his spice rack fail him. Shiitake pot stickers are dank and gooey, vegetable tempura is as taste-free as crystal noodles, and steamed vegetables may have been smuggled in from the macrobiotic kitchen at Souen. Crispy roast duck is fine but is also his only dish that's completely predictable. The Mandarin-duck pancakes, a Sunday special, are hardly worth the effort: They're just more crispy duck with thin flapjacks. And the Thursday special of wok-fried black chicken has the oddest aftertaste, like an herbal mouthwash.

But his barbecued pork chow is a great big sloppy dish of yum. Juicy pan-fried prawns ignite a pleasing slow burn fanned by a golden curry sauce and are accompanied by one of China Grill's signature dishes, crispy spinach, expertly cooked perhaps for the first time in years. Klein should offer it by the bowl. Shanghai lobster noodles are tasty but get pasty too quickly in a thick bath of red Thai coconut sauce. The sesame seared tuna is far more successful, and the special short ribs are a reason to look forward to Tuesdays.

Quick. What's the last delicious Asian-inspired dessert you've had? Well, Chow Bar won't replace that blank look on your face. Maybe it would be best if all that energy wasted concocting sake ice-cream floats and mochi ice cream was divided up between making a good chocolate cake and teaching the staff to focus.

Because here's where I'm having my moral crisis. If you reside in the Village, Chow Bar is an effortlessly easy place to fall into. And its chosen pace reflects the wandering charm of those who daily stroll down Charles Street. Not dressed and no place to go? Here's your respite. But you folks who live elsewhere and descend en masse, eagerly searching for gustatory thrills, have a different agenda. Though the kitchen is willing, the place's spirit is likely to be compromised by invaders from cars, taxis, and rented limos. One night, three local women play pass-the-football with an alternately bubbling then braying baby boy. None of the surrounding locals complain. Would you be so patient?

That's why I'm cautioning you -- and counting on you -- to take your turns heading down to Chow Bar. Form a single line, please. Realize that you are strangers in a strange land, and that with restaurants like Chow Bar, if you do not go gently into their good nights, the rooms you create will be your own -- not the ones they intended you to enjoy. Are you with me? Good. This way, when the locals cry out, "There goes the neighborhood!," my conscience will be as clean as Buddha's.


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