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Cafeteria Style

Sure, the food at Hudson Cafeteria is hit-or-miss -- but who cares? Since when did hipsters need scene and cuisine? And for those who do, City Eatery delivers.

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On the weekends, the line snakes outside the door, partially because Aggie's on West Houston offers one of the best diner menus in town, but also because it's a neighborhood hangout of a special order. Part speaker's corner, community center, and cat sanctuary, Aggie's is presided over by a woman whose integrity is as implacable as her hair is unkempt and whose diner (as the saying goes) runs only on two speeds, and you won't like the other one. Most of Aggie's clientele knows this, and likes it that way. Occasionally, though, someone comes in expecting the stagy cutesiness of E.J.'s Luncheonette or Johnny Rockets or, because to the uninitiated this looks like a mere coffee shop, a little more humility or deference. When things turn cranky, Aggie remains briskly stoic even as the client's petulance escalates. To a point. Then she waits. When asked for the bill, Aggie tells the customer there is none -- and calmly informs them, "I don't think this is the right place for you. In the future you really will be happier eating somewhere else." At that point, stuttering and protest usually ensue. Aggie listens, and smiles -- ceaselessly -- while repeating "This is not the right place" with relentless sweetness until the soon-to-be-former client exits, for good.

Harsh? Perhaps. But honest and, in the long run, a surefire time- and grief-saver. Would that more folks asked that question -- Is this the kind of place I like? -- of themselves. Can anyone really believe that every popular restaurant is the right one for him or her, or that every restaurant that the critics pan is the wrong one? The problem is, so much print and attention is directed toward noting food and décor, music and martini menus, and almost none to fit. It's not enough to know if dishes are great or ghastly, whether the lighting is glamorous or ghoulish. Whether or not it's the kind of place you are actually going to enjoy also matters. Big-time.

For example, could there currently be a more splintered whipping post in town than Hudson Cafeteria in Ian Schrager's new Hudson Hotel? A wrongheaded early judgment -- a bogus "no reservations policy" (no man with either Schrager or restaurant partner Jeffrey Chodorow's contacts should ever try to pull off such a coy stunt) -- immediately instigated chaos, favoritism, name-dropping and -calling. Then the place hosted so many private parties in the first few weeks that hundreds of potential patrons were turned away, while the kitchen had no chance to behave like a restaurant. The final straw was actually a velvet rope, manned by door droids, blocking the main entrance to the hotel. This kept numerous restaurantgoers with "friends of" reservations, and registered hotel guests, freezing on the sidewalk. The word-of-mouth turned as foul as the floor of Hogs & Heifers after last call. Schrager and Co. were asking for it, and they got it: reviews filled with disdainful laughs and warnings galore. Hudson Cafeteria is not the right place for you, the critics declared.

Or was it just not right for them?

Time has passed. There is now easy access to the hotel and cafeteria. The dopes by the ropes have been banished. The first face you see is usually a smiling one, unafflicted by cluelessness. Reservations are possible. With the tumult gone and the crowd usually seated, it's possible to see what a toweringly stunning room the Cafeteria is -- all brick and mile-high glass cases, atmospherically lit as if Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole were about to film their climactic encounter from The Lion in Winter. Almost hallowed, even, except for three glaring flaws. During lunch, the natural-light-starved room's gloominess would prompt only Doris Lessing to order champagne. It's actually a terrible room for a private party, as the open center kitchen chops the space in half. And Phillippe Starck has framed the kitchen in plastic panels, each depicting the back of a head engulfed in flames, an inexplicable homage to Drew Barrymore in Firestarter.

The menu still suffers 20/400 vision (let's see, comfort food or bistro? Or comfort bistro?), and if you choose your dishes unwisely, it can be a disaster. There is a lobster bisque that explains why no one ever marketed stewed-tomato junket. A roasted red snapper in a carrot-orange glaze was so disconcerting that one of my dinner guests has thought of almost nothing else for days. Then there was a lamb shank too tough for even Fred Flintstone to feed Dino, and a devil's-food cake slightly less moist than the contents of a Dust Buster.

But!

Did I ever see one sad face in this joint? Anyone radiating irritation, dissatisfaction, or regret that they hadn't chosen Pastis? In fact, not only does the great hall vibrate with good cheer, but for a radiant hot spot, it's pleasantly unraucous. The folks sitting at row upon row of mess-hall-length dining-room tables seem to be enjoying their surprisingly tasty liver seared in "balsamic onions," the perfectly satisfying breadcrumb-free turkey-and-shiitake meat loaf, a bizarre but weirdly seductive spaghetti with tuna meatballs (I said it was bizarre), or big, clunkily chewy chunks of pork asado that give off the soothing aroma of onion, lime, and garlic (though the city could use the yucca this dish comes with for pothole repair).

Now, could you enjoy yourself at those long tables eating short-rib-beef stew (discard the top layer and it's briny and fine) and macaroni and cheese (don't you dare fall for it with foie gras; have it plain or die)? Or are you more likely to be reminded of those four years in high school when you never sat with the A-crowd? Can you enjoy the snappy jumbo shrimp in patia curry? Or does the totally winning young wait staff's informality make you feel parental, and do the parties of eight make you wish you had more friends who didn't go to bed early?

A few years ago, a critic moaned and groaned about how she could not find a conveniently civilized way to eat her food at Lot 61 because of the scarcity of dining tables and chairs. Funny, but all the 26-year-olds who sit there on the edge of the couches chewing away nightly seem to be having no problem.

If Hudson Cafeteria is the right place for you, it's about as easy to enjoy yourself there as it is on Coney Island's Cyclone. But if it's not, admit it and move on. No, you are not too old, or too unhip, or a snob. This just isn't what you want from an evening out. But don't go looking for it at E.J.'s Luncheonette either. You can try Aggie's -- just behave.

You might try City Eatery, though. In fact, all of you might try City Eatery. On the weekends, the site of the formerly excruciatingly inept Astor Restaurant & Lounge is finally buzzing as this space should be. But during the week, this Balthazar-on-a-thin-dime room feels forlornly Hopperesque, as if it was something executive chef Scott Conant said that put people off. It certainly couldn't be what he cooks.

As he previously displayed at Cucina, Conant has a delightful gift for invigorating familiar food and demystifying those dishes and ingredients you might be encountering for the first time. (He was also the handsomest chef in town till Todd English came along. Now it's a tie.) You know how butternut-squash soup always soothes, then bores, like porridge? Conant's version, with goat cheese and crispy shallots, hits like a tickling heat flash. He adds just enough truffle essence to give polenta depth and vigor. Braised octopus is so tender and welcome with tomato and onions that unsuspecting guests took it for yummy bay scallops. A truly sweet, juicy venison is roasted in poached quince. Rabbit is also roasted tender as veal stew, with shallots and sweet peas. Mussels and leeks mix happily in his homemade spaghetti. The lamb ravioli with flecks of pecorino and carrot, however, is a rare Conant misstep.

Pumpkin cheesecake, also, is somewhat off: It seems like a denim evening gown -- where is it going? But the apple-crisp tart is strong and demanding, the gianduja pot de crème makes it worth learning how to pronounce gianduja, and the chocolate cake made me nuts -- actually, just plain piggy.

City Eatery is on the Bowery, right opposite the legendarily grungy CBGB. But don't worry. No need to dress like you used to be a groupie for the Ramones. And no need to feel weird if you do. In fact, City Eatery has the potential to be a restaurant that is the right place for almost everybody. So why don't you stop striving to fit into the ones where you don't belong, and get here instead? There's room. For now.

Hudson Cafeteria
Hudson Hotel
356 West 58th Street (212-554-6500). Breakfast, 6:30 to 11:30 a.m. Lunch and dinner, noon to 1 a.m. Appetizers, $7.50 to $12; entrées, $7.50 to $28.50. All major credit cards.
City Eatery
316 Bowery (212-253-8644). Dinner, Sunday through Wednesday 6 p.m. to midnight, Thursday till 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday till 2 a.m. Appetizers, $6 to $14; entrées, $13 to $27.
A.E., M.C., V.


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