I came home from Venice hungry. Venice, the two-faced, shimmers with promise, its treasures seemingly exposed but its most honeyed wonders hidden away. In two months of airing our Venetian obsessions, we found elusive pleasures in secret gardens – but great dining was rarely one of them. I had overdosed on cuttlefish in its ferociously enriched midnight ink and cod whipped to a sticky mucilage. I needed a great hamburger. I dreamed of vegetables ever-so-slightly undercooked. Authentic hot-and-sour soup. My kingdom for chili con carne. I was starved for the fuss and variety of eating in New York.
With characteristic exuberance and chutzpa, perhaps 35 restaurants had braved the scene in my absence, and the quadrille of chefs trading kitchens seemed more manic than usual. In my first week back, I discovered complex Indian exotica and a couple of pathetic Balthazar wannabes. Though the modish dark aura of downtown youth at the minimalist Bond Street made me feel vintage, I was excited to recognize the delicious tricks of a favorite sushi chef. But the place that most satisfied my down-home longings was Joe’s … Again, the latest effort to resuscitate a Village hangout born in 1933 as Joe’s and reprised in 1982 as Formerly Joe’s. Even the prices – entrées $14 to $22.50 – felt right.
The small, crusty oval of warmed sourdough that arrives on a breadboard heralds the promise. A robust Gigondas from a sophisticated wine list warms us as we are drying off from a monsoon outside. The front room seems plain, a bit cheerless with its frieze of small black-and-white photos, till we get the joke – all of them are Joes: McCarthy, Bishop, Namath, Heatherton, Louis. And isn’t that a familiar lament from Pal Joey on the sound system? “Yes, but it’s just a coincidence,” the waiter replies, his shaved head and hoop earrings a bit of a jolt to barely repatriated eyes.
There is a brief interlude to notice that the handsome arcing lights overhead throw a ghostly green hue, so we look like we’ve been mugged and bruised in a back alley. But that lament is forgotten as the four of us are distracted by the too-small appetizer tower of mushroom-bread pudding with its peppy leek-and-bacon sauce – a Thanksgiving turkey should be so happily stuffed. The bacon smoke mingles with scents of the sea in a wonderful mussel-and-scallop chowder. And we’re making short work of crisp calamari piled on a devilish swamp of mashed Greek olives and pepperoncini. It does not outright mimic Bobby Flay’s somewhat Spanish food at Bolo. But it’s enough to remind me that chef Neil Manacle spent four years in that kitchen as chef de cuisine before leaving to hook up here with Andrew Nathan, owner of the nearby bistro Frontière.
My confederates tonight are regulars on my feeding forays. They ride the same highs of discovery – or, more often, dyspeptic lows of despair – as I do. So from all the murmurs of pleasure, I sense how taken we are with the complex flavors of the cioppino, the moist braised rabbit on chestnut polenta, and a juicy pork chop with red-wine-stewed cabbage. Is the “Great American Meatloaf” special too salty? Maybe. But I love its rich crustiness, the mashed potatoes and spring peas – hooray, neither over- or undercooked. Even a side of skin-edged fries is irresistible. Great expectations are somewhat dashed when the menu’s advertised “garlic-and-sage gratin” turns out to be not very garlicky but still luscious scalloped potatoes. Only a misguided pear salad and sickly sweet sorbets are all-out losers. Butterscotch pudding under a float of whipped cream, grilled lemon pound cake, and ice cream sandwiched between soft chocolate-walnut-Sambuca cookies test any lingering resolve to be prudent.
I can’t wait to return. When my mate, the Road Food Warrior, learns I’ve booked lunch – a meal he’s sworn off so he can share my life without straining his antique jeans – he wants to come, too. Luckily he’s busy that day, because lunch is a dud: Too sweet and too cinnamony squash soup. Beet salad that’s really a mush. Listless chopped salad. My companions reject the rock-shrimp fritters and think I’m losing it because I love the thick gummy batter. But I do. I use bits of it to scoop up the sauce, a rich-as-Sandy Weill mayo with capers, big chunks of red pepper, and pickle – a hybrid of tartar sauce and salade russe. Four of us, macaroni addicts all, reject the oversauced desecration of Mom’s old faithful as well as an insipid shepherd’s pie and fries that taste like reruns from who knows when. Only the smartly splendid burger, thick and rare and perfectly cooked, lives up to the standards of that earlier dinner.
But all is well a few nights later in the quieter, good-looking back room. Well, almost all. I suspect the chef isn’t willing to deliver simply the best traditional American cooking we want in our neighborhood tavern. He’s so caught up in trying to gussy it up that he loses touch with what works or, worse, simply hasn’t a clue. Still, I’m pleased again with the calamari and the mushroom-bread pudding (though I’d trade the stingy little tuffet for a generous hunk). The beet salad – better on a larger plate – seems tangier tonight. And our small gathering of friends is as happy as I am with the straightforward sirloin (a blue-cheese-frosted crouton on the side), the born-again fries, and the Friday-night-special fish and chips. If only the London broil weren’t so tough. If only the pan-seared trout weren’t quite so bland, so ridiculously paired with raisin-almond chutney. Again, the ice-cream sandwich, butterscotch pudding, and a banana split (seductive in spite of too much banana and not enough chocolate sauce) mellow us out with the calories of childhood. As we soldier on in the guerrilla warfare of urban life, we crave the food we grew up with. Heaven knows, New York gives us the world to eat. I can’t really guess whether Joe’s … Again will score with its strengths or stumble over its ego. Or whether the crowd whooping it up at the bar up front even cares.
Joe’s … Again, 230 West 4th Street (727-3006). Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday till 3:30 p.m. Dinner, 5:30 p.m. to midnight daily. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.