Food isn't everything. The city is full of restaurants run by ambitious former sous chefs who have managed to charm a couple of backers with their ability to pile up some frisée and lamb chops in a gravity-challenging piece of edible architecture. But to make people feel at home and to have wait staff who offer useful suggestions instead of their autobiographies -- that's the kind of service that is almost always restricted to the best and priciest restaurants. So it was with surprise and pleasure that I sampled the reasonably priced food and solicitous service at The Place (310 West 4th Street; 924-2711), a cozy, rustic-beamed West Village spot that is as sophisticated yet unstressed as the smoky Julie London ballads that purr out of its just-loud-enough stereo.
Owner Alex Achilleos spent most of his professional career creating restaurants in London, Paris, Spain, and even Damascus, Syria, before landing in New York about a year ago. In partnership with Buenos Aires native Pablo Scheffel, he now presides over the Place (a name that I find appealing in the same way that I liked the name the Band when Bob Dylan's backup group struck out on their own).
The semi-Mediterranean menu is bracingly spare. On my first visit, it offered seven appetizers and eight entrées and got the point across in a mere 136 words of refreshingly adjective-free prose. Chef Mallory Buford displays a sure hand, light on the fat but compensating by ratcheting up the flavor with strong reductions, inventive seasoning, and fresh herbs. His squid appetizer is marinated overnight in red wine and herbs, its vinousness a nice change from the lemon juice or vinaigrette more commonly served with squid. A crespeu -- which is a kind of Provençal vegetable Napoleon -- alternates layers of moist grilled summer vegetables with light egg crêpes. The cold cucumber soup topped with a slice of salmon cured in orange juice was nicely smooth and cool (though I would have strained it a little finer). My favorite starter was goat-cheese-and-walnut ravioli with a sherry beet sauce. It sounds très chic, but the tastes it evokes were more Pinsk than Paris, recalling the flavor of a great cheese blintz with a grandmotherly borscht.
The three meat entrées are powerhouses. A reduction of white wine and Pommery mustard gives the roast pork loin a very unporky brightness. The curry-crusted lamb with cardamom jus over jasmine rice and apricots has the heartiness of an English roast but the subtle orchestration of flavors that accounts for the increasing popularity of Middle Eastern and Indian spices -- a trend that goes hand in glove with the low-fat, high-flavor regimen of our lipid-leery times. One of my dining companions thought the hanger steak was a bit dry, but I found it reminiscent of the Argentine bife chorizo; it's a chewy yet tasteful cut to which Buford gives a successful twist by rubbing it with rosemary. Both the roast chicken and the salmon were serviceable, but I find it harder and harder to discover any new charms in these two default dishes of the nineties. The only clinker was a shiitake-and-asparagus risotto; somehow this particular mushroom does not bring out the best in the asparagus and vice versa, but it was served with such a smile that even that misstep is easily forgivable.
In any small kitchen, something has to give, and at the Place, the desserts were not as memorable as the rest of the food. Not bad, but still nothing to crow about yet. The affordable wine list, however, shows the same refined but uncomplicated spirit that informs the rest of the menu.
Dinner, Monday through Friday from 6 to 11, Saturday and Sunday 6 to 12. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday 12 to 3:30. Appetizers, $6-$8; entrées $14-$19. Cash only.