It’s no secret these days that the wide cobblestone piazza at the bottom tip of Ninth Avenue is to restaurants what Bourbon Street is to bars and Las Vegas is to casinos. It’s a megadestination, one that’s transcended place and neighborhood and even city, and seems to belong, now, to the whole world. Or so it appeared the other evening, as I jostled my way down the crowded sidewalk past rows of taxicabs and movie-production trailers stacked on the street and crowds of newly tanned revelers roiling around and yammering madly into their cell phones. A big-budget movie was being filmed, so assorted extras were milling around and people were gawking as burly, dim-witted techs tried to move them along. A summer moon rose in the evening sky, and there may have been a helicopter or two hovering overhead. Two Japanese ladies craned their necks, hoping to spy a movie star, and I craned my neck, too. “Who’s in the movie?” I asked. “Will Smith!” came their breathless reply.
In this amplified, Disneyland environment, 5 Ninth seems almost quaintly discreet. The new restaurant is located in a townhouse instead of a disco-size, multitiered former meat locker, and there’s no garish sign outside the door (in the faux-speakeasy style, the name is the address). There’s a pleasant garden seating area, and inside, a glowing, backlit bar that serves eclectic cocktails (try the Paloma, which is made with tequila and grapefruit soda) and suffuses patrons with a golden, nightclub glow. The restaurant’s floors are made from what appear to be planks of finished plywood, and the tables are similarly rustic and unadorned. There’s a pocket-size, utilitarian dining room upstairs, linked to the ground floor by a narrow, crowded stairwell. The dining room is decorated with random photographs of deceased or ancient rock stars (Lennon, Tina Turner), and on a busy night, the wobbly café tables are jammed together and the little room bounces with noise.
What distinguishes 5 Ninth from its raucous neighbors, however, is the work of its young chef, Zak Pelaccio. Like a highly touted minor-league pitcher, Pelaccio comes to Manhattan from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he earned a sizable underground reputation at a now-defunct restaurant called the Chickenbone Café. Pelaccio specializes in the dark art of fusion cooking (coconut chicken soup, panini filled with sweet, crumbling Vietnamese sausage), and at 5 Ninth, he’s expanded his repertoire to include proper big-city dishes (côte de boeuf, John Dory, duck), an impressive roster of daily specials, and a variety of steamy Southeast Asian–style soups. The soups reside on the appetizer list, and the best of them is something called “Noodles Raja Chulan.” It’s made of flat rice noodles and a creamy coconut broth, shot through with bits of lobster and galangal flowers. Galangal is a gingery, peppery spice favored in Southeast Asian cooking, and it gives the soup an exotic kick, like a delicate, Malay version of lobster chowder.
“Pelaccio comes to Manhattan from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he earned a sizable reputation at the Chickenbone Café.”
The food at 5 Ninth seemed to improve with each visit. If it’s pork you like, Pelaccio has reprised his famous Chickenbone dish, peas and bacon, which consists of plump, braised slices of pork belly laid over a healthful mound of pea shoots and fava beans. My appetizer portion of soft-shell crab was almost too dainty (the tiny crabs are muffled in spicy Chinese crab sauce, mustard greens, chorizo, and bits of tofu), but the lobster in a dish called “Lobster 5 Ninth” was nicely poached, touched with a beurre blanc flavored with ginger, and covered in a light tempura crust. The other seafood I sampled was similarly inventive, particularly the John Dory (served in a green garlic sauce, with turmeric, shallots, and a touch of mustard) and the fresh steamed loup de mer, which comes to the table with the bones in and covered, in the classic Thai style, with a chili paste and a bristling green-garden assortment of cilantro sprouts, green papaya, and ginger.
Pelaccio’s kitchen is small, and he does a lot of the cooking himself, the way he did back in Brooklyn. Given the crowd that swarms into 5 Ninth each evening, this means the service is often slow, harried, and sometimes nonexistent. Generally, though, it’s worth the wait. The two robust meat dishes I sampled—short ribs and lamb shoulder—were braised to a kind of savory, marshmallow softness and served, respectively, over panzanella and with a crumbling of tangy sheep’s-milk cheese. The specials menu is full of similar hearty surprises, although the grilled baby goat I ordered off it was as tough as a piece of old horse meat and about as tasty. Not so the chicken, which I first ordered off the main menu pan-roasted in a milky Malaysian marinade, then fried in the classic southern style, and finally, best of all, cooked whole (for two, as a $60 special) and served over a helping of superior succotash (it’s lightly creamy with a peppery kick), with slices of thick fried green tomatoes dripped with buttermilk dressing.
Like everywhere else in the meatpacking district, at 5 Ninth the crowd is consciously glittering and exuberant to the point of mass hysteria. On the evenings I dropped in, people were pressed around the bar like chickens in a coop, and the dining rooms were so clamorous that it was difficult to know whether anyone was paying attention to the food at all. The desserts aren’t worth paying very much attention to unless you happen to enjoy fusion experiments involving lots of glutinous and obscure Asian ingredients. There are little pockets of caramel wrapped in phyllo, and a decent bowl of summer cherries flavored with a scoop of ice cream tasting faintly of tea. On the specials menu, you’ll encounter colonies of tapioca balls swimming in a milky, curiously refreshing cinnamon liquid, and a less refreshing pineapple granité mixed in a frosty glass with a helping of mung beans. As it turns out, mung beans don’t taste like much (they’re simultaneously wet and chalky). But they do add an antic quality to a meal that perfectly matches the new spirit of the neighborhood.