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Flee the Market

When bargain hunting in Chelsea wears you out, the offbeat restaurant row on West 25th Street -- Antique Cafe, Milanes, and Johny's -- is the perfect refuge.

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The Underground Gourmet regularly haunts the flea markets in the Garment District, attracted not so much by the prospect of picking up a rare edition of the poems of Lord Dunsany or a monkey-fur jacket as by the edible snips to be had in a reputedly unfoody locality. At first light, I join the dealers, collectors, and other early birds who sip truly good coffee (95 cents) and mumble bargain-basement confidences at the Antique Café (101 West 25th Street; 675-1663), a pint-size establishment with six tables, a cheery Gallic atmosphere, and surprisingly deep culinary pockets.

For breakfast at the cold crack of dawn, warm up with soup (cream of mushroom with sherry, or French onion with Dijon mustard; $3.50 with roll) or a peanut-butter-and-jelly cookie ($1.25), a saucer-size biscuit that fractures into dunkable, ungainsayable fragments. Other home-baked cookies, white-chocolate-cherry, honey-raisin-nut, and chocolate-chunk, are also available (three for $1.75).

For lunch -- hungry work, all that searching high and low for claw-footed bathtubs -- tuck in to the excellent sandwiches and salads. The modus operandi in the kitchen involves taking a bunch of fresh ingredients and jumbling them up in accordance with the changeable inclinations of the chef. You might find a grilled-chicken salad of mixed field greens sweetened with red and white grapes and pomegranate seeds ($5.25); big, fruity ingots of roasted pumpkin with cranberries, apricots, and raisins ($4.25); smallish poppers with jalapeño and cheese (three for $1.75); and a salad with mushrooms stuffed with black beans and dandelion ($5.25) created that morning by co-proprietor Jon Wolohojian without (he freely confessed) the foggiest notion of how it would turn out. Fine, it transpired, but perhaps not substantial enough to gratify the more voracious customer.

To fill your boots, tackle the grilled-vegetable-and-smoked-Gouda sandwich ($4.95), which crams yellow squash, eggplant, zucchini, green beans, carrots, and broccoli between doorstop slabs of peasant bread smeared with a superb spicy-mustard dressing. Or try the ratatouille-and-goat-cheese sandwich, an appropriately squelchy coming-together of chèvre, mushrooms, onions, tomato, and eggplant ($5.25), or the hearty meat loaf (comes with salad; $5.95).

In case anyone got the wrong idea, Antique Cafe buzzes throughout the week as well as on weekends. Also, parents of small children should note, it has developed a sideline of hosting children's afternoon parties: You can certainly see how the Cafe's take on the Rice Krispies treat ($1.45) -- marshmallow-bound Krispies bejeweled with bits of Cap'n Crunch, Froot Loops, and Cocoa Puffs -- would make 9-year-olds delirious (the Underground Gourmet enjoyed them just a bit himself). Wolohojian said that he and Marcial Cavero opened Antique Cafe last September because they and their pals needed somewhere to have a coffee and a snack while flea-marketeering. Now their pals go flea-marketeering in order to have an excuse for eating at the Cafe.

Antique Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cash only.


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