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Unsung Heroes

Two local charmers -- Maroons and ViceVersa -- have won fans without relying on a rush of critical acclaim. It's easy to see why.

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Critics. who needs them? Everybody, right? Well, they sure think so. Oh, at first they'll give you the patented disclaimer, that "I'm just one voice, an educated opinion from someone who merely loves _____ (film, haute couture, Amish erotica, etc.)." Get past the all-purpose absolution, however, and one soon learns that critics are not really a very humble lot. They're too blithe, quick, and on deadline to be scathed by such overused barbs as "Those who can't do, teach." They're too often quoted by an increasingly self-referential media, too eagerly heeded by readers more revved up than ever to devour the new and savor the best. Modern critics, for better and more likely for worse, have been handed, and clutch tightly to, the power to anoint.

But every now and then -- what do you know? -- a real crowd pleaser makes it without them. I don't mean a new Adam Sandler film, or another Steve Hanson grill, both of which come from sources of proven success. No, it's more like the restaurant that opens with scant attention yet, over a few years, methodically refines and adjusts its kitchen and builds a loyal clientele one by one, day by day. For a professional explorer to stumble upon such uncharted territory can be very chastening. I mean, what took me so long? But when I tell my ego to take a hike long enough to allow me to enjoy some deliciously spicy Jamaican jerk chicken wings and a wedge of red-velvet cake so giddily indulgent it makes me sorry I don't have a southern accent, the experience can be downright exhilarating, and really fattening.

I know, I should be embarrassed that my financial adviser has been going to Maroons for two years and I just got my dusty butt in there. The place obviously doesn't need my help filling chairs, and they certainly weren't rolling out the red carpet for two big hungry strangers coming in late on a weeknight. Actually, there's not a lot of room to roll out anything. Set in a basement around a brownstone entryway, Maroons is the size of two studio apartments in Chelsea. The ceiling is low, the seats are tight, the reggae is ever-present, and if you leave your jacket on the back of a chair instead of checking it, one of the waitresses will stare you down till its buttons melt.

Maroons can be a challenge to your sense of accommodation. But they have a way of doing things here. And it gets you. First, it gets you in the head. I will stack up the house drinks Angela the bartender makes against any of the overreaching, cloying meany-tinis you've sampled in the past six months. Toots Shor would have offered this woman a race horse in order to get her to work for him.

Then comes a conga line of appetizers so appealing you have to make a mental note to slow down and chew. There's a cascade of little goodies: superbly sticky wings and equally gooey baby back ribs, richly dense codfish fritters, pepper-pot soup, cleanly fried hush puppies and yucca puffs, sweet and tenderly cooked mango shrimp, and, best of all, fried green tomatoes that finally make this Yankee understand what he's been missing.

Just as there has never been a chef who hasn't boasted that his fried chicken is the best, there's never been a critic who hasn't sworn he's found it. Well, I never staked a claim until now. The chicken here has skin crackling like potato chips and meat you want to lick like a lollipop, and chef Eugene McCall Jr. should take a bow for creating a dish so completely unfussy and tear-into-it terrific. But in order to try it you may have to stop wolfing the smothered pork chops and grits the person on your left is drooling over, or the curried goat with superb succotash that has made the friend on your right fall suddenly silent. The jerk pork isn't nearly as good as the jerk chicken (which is only a bit better than the barbecued chicken), and the meat loaf can't match the oxtail, but the spicy red fish with callaloo and the garlic shrimp with wonderfully smoky collard greens are both worth downing another house margarita over.

Deny yourself dessert? The scorn from the waitresses at the first sign of hesitation is withering enough, but Maroons' version of apple pie is exactly what this classic is supposed to taste like. Hot bread pudding with vanilla rum is better than any other I've ever tried. Get there late? No sweet-potato pie for you. And though it sounds more familiar, skip the pallid layer cake and vulgarly wrap yourself in red velvet. To a critic, everything about this violently sweet, foolishly scarlet cake is so wrong. Except how happy it makes your mouth.

"Look who's back. Those two guys who ate everything that wasn't nailed down," said the jacket snatcher the second time we came. "We're still talking about you!" And I'm still talking about them, humbled but hungry.

For two years, I walked by ViceVersa because it was down the street from one of my favorite bistros, Tout Va Bien. It looked nicely atmospheric, very clean-lined, almost too modern next to the checkerboard tattiness of its neighbors. But I didn't go in. One dish on the menu kept putting me off: casoncelli alla Bergamasca, which are little ravioli stuffed with veal, raisins, and amaretto cookies and served with sage butter and pancetta. Whew! A whole three-course meal in a patty. What was the chef thinking? Well, evidently, a lot of other neighborhood folks thought differently, and they have made ViceVersa the kitchen and living room they don't have. Why? Not only is it as friendly a restaurant as the family reunion you never had, but that casoncelli is absolutely bewitching. And so are so many of the surprisingly inventive dishes on ViceVersa's menu, like strangled-priest pasta with duck ragout, pan-seared sardines with rosemary, and dorade with pistachio nuts. It's a perfect place to go after the theater, when it's your turn to be critic. At least the food will be foolproof. And they don't give a damn what you do with your jacket.

Maroons 244 West 16th Street (212-206-8640). Lunch, Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner, Sunday through Tuesday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday till midnight. Appetizers, $5 to $13; entrées, $13 to $23. All major credit cards.

ViceVersa 325 West 51st Street (212-399-9291). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $10.50 to $15; entrées, $17 to $24. AE, MC, V.


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