All sorts of things can conspire to create a restaurant row -- and not just a shared secret underground kitchen like the one some say is responsible for all that vindaloo on Little India's 6th Street. There's proximity to entertainment (West 46th Street in the theater district), or ethnic homogeneity (Arthur Avenue in the Bronx). Or sheer serendipity, as in the case of Cornelia Street in the West Village, where Home, Pó, Le Gigot, and the Pearl Oyster Bar coexist on one short block. This fall, it's happening on East 1st Street, between the handball courts near First Avenue and the Mobil station on Second, where there are no fewer than six eating establishments, plus a shack that dispenses fruit smoothies and rice and beans. Two new kids on the block, Prune and the Tasting Room, are already crowded hangouts; a third, Chabada, still tinkering with its menu and personnel, might eventually live up to its name, which is French slang for chic. The others -- Chez es Saada, the Elephant, and the eight-year-old Boca Chica -- are thriving.
On the second night the minuscule Tasting Room was open, every one of its 26 seats was occupied. A poor man's Veritas, the Tasting Room celebrates American wine with a climate-controlled cellar holding 300 varieties ranging in price from $21 to $300 (with a few private-consignment rarities that run higher). Why all-American? "We didn't want to be the Barnes & Noble of wine bars," says co-owner Renée Alevras, who oversees the dining room while her chef husband, Colin, cooks downstairs. The couple met at Peter Kump's cooking school, and seven years later they converted the tiny storefront that was once the original Little Rickie's novelty shop (and later, the much-loved First Street Cafe) into this friendly, informal wine bar. Except there's no room for a bar. There's barely room to squeeze sideways between the eleven paper-covered tables; the most distinctive feature of the renovation is a narrow panel of upholstered cushion set into the wall at the perfect height at which to rest your head, presumably after one taste too many.
"The food takes a backseat to the wine," admits Renée, who seems to be selling her husband's talents short. A dozen menu items may be ordered in small (tasting) or large (sharing) portions, and are intended to complement the wine -- which explains why there are no artichokes, no asparagus, and no vinegar bite to the salad dressing. (Colin uses lemon juice instead.) Still, even teetotalers should enjoy themselves here, though maybe not as much as aspiring wine geeks, who could easily spend the meal perusing the extensive, user-friendly list. Categorized by varietal, each grape is described in layman's terms with suggested menu pairings. If you like Syrah, for instance, order the oxtail, the blue-cheese salad, or the vegetable bowl.
About that salad: The once denigrated iceberg is back in all its crunchy glory, with nuggets of good smoky bacon and a generous ladling of blue-cheese dressing ($6 tasting; $10 sharing). The green salad ($5; $8) is one of those micro-leaf jobs, full of pungent herbs, and dressed with a luscious, creamless purée of hazelnuts. (Pinot Noir, anyone?) The smoked-trout plate ($7; $12) is more of a salad, decorated with whole pickled beets and parsley, under a shaving of fresh horseradish that (for wine reasons, perhaps?) lacks its characteristic bite. Steamed mussels ($6; $10) swim in a beautiful, vibrant broth made from the sort of fresh-squeezed carrot-orange concoction you'd buy at the health-food store. And the duck leg, all moist, tender meat, rests on a bed of wehani red rice, its attendant yam sauce tasting nothing like Thanksgiving ($9; $16).
It is entirely permissible to skip dinner and savor a glass of wine ($6-$11) while munching on the trio of farmhouse cheeses (Humboldt Fog goat, Vella Monterey Jack, and New York State blue one night) that come with crunchy spiced walnuts and slivers of ripe pear ($12; $22). Or just stop in, after an overamplified show at a nearby Houston Street nightclub, for a bit of quiet civility in the form of a luscious, warm baked Rome apple with cinnamon ice cream ($6) and a glass of Black Diamond port from California's Pine Ridge Winery. (The Tasting Room, 72 East 1st Street; 212-358-7831. Dinner Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Saturdays till 2 a.m.)
Prune, an American bistro that opened two months ago in the abandoned space that used to be the infallibly Gallic Casanis, is a wonderful addition to the block. Its name is a bit of a misnomer; there's not a wrinkled plum in sight. But chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton's childhood nickname (no relation to pruney actor George) embodies the sort of unpretentious home cooking at which she excels, a grab bag of eccentric, multicultural influences that is, at heart, ineluctably American -- as any place that serves Triscuits, bologna, and deviled eggs with such unabashed panache must undoubtedly be.
The décor is East Village thrift-shop moderne. The tables are covered with brown butcher paper; the silver-tipped lightbulbs are bare; and everything is artfully mismatched, from seats to stemware. Bring your own wine, and you may very well drink it out of a jelly jar or a naked-lady glass. The zinc bar and the mosaic tile floor are holdovers from the previous tenant. But the former air of French frostiness has melted, with the help of genuinely friendly service and a soulful soundtrack of Aretha, Michelle Shocked, and random rockabilly. It's now the kind of joint that sends tin buckets of crispy papadum to every table in lieu of dinner rolls. The room positively blooms with life: Potted paperwhites sit on the bar and on the kitchen counter, and pale-pink garden roses perch precariously on the mirror ledge. Even the drinking water is poured from a green plastic watering can. And Hamilton, who modestly describes herself as an anonymous "kitchen grunt" without a pedigree, seems to be blossoming here as well.
Prune's quirky bar menu, from which you can order additional items as appetizers, reads in part like a cross between a pregnant woman's shopping list and an excerpt from the White Trash Cookbook: pickled shrimp, deviled eggs, and salted mushrooms offered alongside homemade potato chips, handmade bologna, and fried chicken livers and hearts ($3-$7). Don't scoff. Sardines with Triscuits, a dollop of Dijon, and ribboned red onion make a fabulous snack ($4). More sophisticated nibbles like bagna cauda ($4) (one night there were jumbo radishes with leafy greens still attached, slices of red cabbage, and yellow pear tomatoes) to dip in the warm anchovy-garlic dip, and silky sliced Serrano ham and figs with hot toasted almonds ($6), lend some international flair.
The main menu is a simple list -- no designations for appetizers, main courses, or sides. So vegetables, like the crispy, refreshing arrangement of shaved corn, lima beans, and roasted beets with their greens ($7) and a bottomless bowl of al dente chickpeas stewed with preserved lemons ($6), get placement as prominent as the more entrée-ish capon (a breast and two wings) on a savory garlic crouton ($14), bacon-wrapped pork chop with chutney ($16), and pastrami duck breast with a rye-flavored, fried-shallot omelet ($10). If you want to please yourself and the chef, order the tripe stew ($10). "The cook loves it when someone orders that," confides our waitress. Braised until tender, almost until it reaches the consistency of tofu, the organ meat melds wonderfully with carrots, potatoes, zucchini, and the other stew vegetables; a fragrant gremolata garnish of parsley, lemon peel, and garlic adds a sprightly, acidic bite. Braised lamb shoulder ($14) is actually another savory stew, almost a tajine. Shredded, tender meat soaks up all the flavor of its cinnamon-tinged tomato broth. A delicious rib-eye steak ($17), tender and juicy under a cap of herb butter, is served, like everything that doesn't come in a bowl, on an oversize wood serving platter with upturned edges to catch runaway juices.
For dessert, try the intense lemon-curd pavlova, or the pithivier, a warm pastry filled with pistachio cream and served with tangy buttermilk ice cream drizzled with sweet-tart blackberries (both $6). The almond-studded grappa shortbread cookies are as obese as the bunch of globe grapes they're served with ($5).
If this sounds like an awful lot to choose from, come Sunday for the firehouse-style supper, a four-course $25 prix fixe. Despite her instantaneous success, Hamilton, who lives on the block herself, wasn't sure there was a place for her on the new restaurant row. "The last thing I think it needed was another restaurant," she admits. "But I sort of felt, better me than somebody else." Better for her. Best for us. (Prune, 54 East 1st Street; 212-677-6221; Tuesdays through Thursday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays till 12 a.m., Sundays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.)