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The Cheap List

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Capri Caffé   

Cheap and Sort-of-Healthy Chinese

After years of dietary mayhem, the trend in Chinese restaurants is now toward health food. Or at least that’s what the owners of three new establishments would have the Underground Gourmet believe. Happily, as it turns out, it seems that they were only kidding. Consider the case of the new Grand Sichuan (15 Seventh Ave. S.; 212-645-0222) in the West Village, the latest, tiniest, and best branch yet of the popular chainlet. Here, in a break from Chinese-restaurant tradition, many of the dishes are offered not only in regular, piggy-size platters but also in smaller, cheaper, diet-friendly portions ($1.95 to $7.95), which, unless you pay extra, don’t come with rice—a circumstance, presumably, for which we have either Dr. Atkins or the owner’s accountant to thank. To get into the purported healthy spirit of things, we kicked off our dinner here the other night with a scallion pancake flavored with spinach juice, and a tureen of pumpkin-seed “gochi” soup ($4.25), a nourishing potage of puréed pumpkin festooned with little pink goji berries that our waitress identified to us as “Chinese medicine.” After that, unable to identify for ourselves anything else on the menu that, like the pumpkin-goji-berry soup, would sharpen our eyesight, boost our immune system, and improve our circulation, we reverted to old habits and tucked into a half-dozen or so small-size plates including our favorite, the twice-fried-beef tidbits buried under a blizzard of ground spices, and otherwise known as the majestic No. 94, “Beef w. Cumin Flavor.” Healthy or not, we have to give credit to this Grand Sichuan’s revolutionary small-plate menu structure—a major advance in the Chinese-restaurant world, if only because it allows you to order a greater variety of this sublime food without seeming overly gluttonous.

The owners of the new Cantonese restaurant Noodle Village (13 Mott St.; 212-233-0788), located at the southern tip of Mott Street in Chinatown, also have the health and well being of their customers on their minds. You realize this even before you set foot inside the place, when you notice a sign posted on the window that boasts no msg! The thing to get here is an MSG-free bowl of congee—which comes mingled with everything from sweet corn ($4.75) to frog ($6.75)—and with it, of course, a salutary fried cruller ($1.25). Among this rice soup’s many amazing attributes, according to the menu, is its ability to “harmonize the stomach and the spleen, the two most important organs involved in optimum digestion.” The various soup noodles, which like Grand Sichuan’s entrées are offered in both small and large sizes ($2.75 to $12.75), are also good, not to mention “an essential part of any weight-loss program.”

The similarly minded health nuts over at Grand Sichuan House (8701 Fifth Ave., Bay Ridge; 718-680-8887) in Brooklyn (a distant, separately owned relation of the aforementioned Grand Sichuan) may have taken the trend to the furthest extreme, having set up a smoothie bar of sorts right in the middle of their dining room. But on our visit, the market in smoothie sales was decidedly down, to the extent that the glum juicer who was running the operation spent most of her time outside on a bench smoking cigarettes. As it turns out, that was an ominous sign, as the juice bar, at press time, had suddenly been shut down and escorted from the premises—and without even the courtesy of having been Deathwatched by food blog Eater.

The Italian-Latino Connection

It should come as no surprise that some of the best new affordable Italian restaurants are run, at least in part, by Latin American chefs. That unsung segment of the restaurant force is the backbone of virtually every New York restaurant kitchen, from the temples of haute cuisine to the corner slice joint. What Sasha Rodriguez is cooking at Miranda (80 Berry St., Williamsburg; 718-387-0711), a rustic little trattoria, falls somewhere in between those extremes, and inhabits a unique culinary niche. Rodriguez is half-Dominican, and her front-of-the-house partner, Mauricio Miranda, is Mexican, but they’ve both spent years in Italian kitchens. The result is an Italianish menu full of subtle quirks you won’t find elsewhere: tasty risotto balls stuffed with Mexican chorizo ($9), pappardelle with braised short ribs and mole poblano ragù ($13 appetizer, $19 main), and a tender, juicy pork tenderloin with cumin-spiced risotto and a verdant blanket of mole verde ($22). Our favorite thing, though, can only be found on the brunch menu and isn’t Italian at all: a side of mangú, the mortarlike Dominican breakfast staple of mashed plantains, served here with pickled shallots and enriched with Parmesan cheese ($3).

Down in Tribeca, where a good cheap lunch is hard to find, Capri Caffé (165 Church St.; 212-513-1358) is a bit of a godsend. There is a real, live, genuine native of Capri named Graziano Lembo behind the place, but on our most recent midday visits, it was his Ecuador-born, Torino-trained partner, Eddy Erazo, whose cooked-to-order pastas infused the air with the most delightful aroma of garlic and herbs, and whose deep-seated dedication to la cucina Italiana seems to exceed that of the average Italian nonna. There are grab-and-go tramezzini at lunch, an antipasto case full of vegetables and salads, and soft, milky mozzarella that’s made in-house (as are the excellent olive-oil cookies). But if you’re smart, you’ll try two of the best pastas you’re likely to find downtown, or at least below Canal Street: penne tossed with sweet cherry tomatoes imported from Capri ($6.50), and tagliatelle awash in an olive-oil-based sauce of anchovies, walnuts, garlic, and pecorino ($7.50).


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