Soho and the East Village look as much alike as Lauren and the elder Barbara Bush. And yet, once upon a greedy eighties, developers – salivating over Soho’s blossoming from a lackluster district of warehouses into the city’s most vital destination for art, artisanry, food, fashion, and sex – determined that Soho’s success was so simple and inevitable that they could quickly do the same for the East Village, turning it into a culinary Cinderella. Naturally, nobody bothered to note that Soho was our last urban territory to grow organically, its distinctive personality the result of the people who had moved to work as well as live there. Handpainted silks at Tamala Design were made upstairs in the designers’ apartments. Platters at Contemporary Porcelain were fired in the kiln at the back. Restaurateurs practically rolled out of bed into their storefronts, and their loyal patrons came from down the hall, across the street, or the other side of their beds.
Today, Soho is a mall without a roof or Cheesecake Factory, while the East Village, having reacted to applied fabulousness the way a Deadhead might embrace a Hickey-Freeman wardrobe, still looks pretty much the same as it did when the most upscale dining experience around was a 2 a.m. dinner at Avenue A Sushi. But now, with rents climbing even a pierogi’s throw from Leshko’s, a different tenant is moving to Tompkins Square, more likely to walk through his new neighborhood on the way to work than to hang out in it. And handy as they are, Kiev, 7A, and Cucina di Pesce don’t exactly qualify as fine dining.
Butter, Supper, Jewel Bako, and Industry (food) are recent attempts to satisfy the area’s need for unjarring upscaling. The latter is the most amiable of the four, despite its queer parenthetical and misleading name. Rather than a Boffi-infused steel-and-concrete lair, Industry is how Tyler Brûlé might design a tree house in Killington, with wide horizontal planks of varnished pine, trees rising two stories out of the bar, plus a dangerous-if-you’re-drunk multileveled and slanted floor. The ceiling is dormer-window low. The staff is as genial as a bunch of newfound skiboarding buddies. You have no idea where you are, but you do know you’re not uptown.
Chef Alex Freij’s menu, however, has higher aspirations, and with appetizers like crispy duck dumplings in a tamarind glaze or a tart gazpacho in which floats a clever crab-and-Swiss-cheese sandwich, he saves the locals cab fare to fancier destinations uptown. An unusually formidable vegetable ragout of eggplant, corn, and zucchini bolsters large but sweet seared scallops. Fragrant spinach-and-mushroom ravioli is enhanced by a contrasting butter-and-lemon emulsion. Slightly charred carpaccio zipped by pesto oil is marred only by the flat softness of avocado. Freij likes lobster, which appears in a brisk pepper reduction on penne, as an arch bruschetta with pancetta and tomato, and, best of all, as the star attraction in a corn risotto special.
Proving no good deed goes unpunished, Industry’s entrées display the occasional shortcomings of a reasonably priced menu. Better to charge more for a better cut of rib eye, or offer something cheaper, like hanger steak, or to apply Freij’s zesty marinade to a sweeter rack of lamb. Chicken is just overcooked, and a seared duck breast is thrown by a disharmonious pairing with a tongue-lacquering citrus risotto. Fish are the more rewarding options: grilled salmon in a near-classic teriyaki glaze with very cool fava beans, striped bass with clams in a pesto broth, and a clean skate with leeks and a delicious fennel marmalade.
Desserts, like the décor, are too busy to be comfy. Extract the coconut out of the sugared and spiced rhubarb soup with tapioca, and can the whole notion of crème brûlée with Oreos – it’s a waste of good Oreos. But let’s have more hits like banana cake with hazelnut ice cream.
It’s not a well-oiled machine yet, but Industry’s locals can take heart in the one way in which the house name is notably applicable. Here’s a shop working hard to find a rhythm and a plan to serve its community. As those developers discovered, seamlessness and grace don’t happen overnight.
Almost overnight after September 11, Soho became a ghost mall. Having now lost both its retail distinction and its staying-closer-to-home bridge-and-tunnel street traffic, the area has gotten an economic gut punch second only to Chinatown’s. Streets these summer nights have been empty. But there are two terrific reasons why you should get down here: Thom’s view from its new roof bar atop the hotel 60 Thompson, and its installation of Michael Batt at the helm of the kitchen. A protégé of Town’s Geoffrey Zakarian, Batt has ingeniously fashioned a menu that eschews all the Asian trappings Thom started out with when it opened late last summer. His wild-asparagus soup is heady with morels. Heirloom tomatoes are bejeweled by yellow watermelon and currants. Duck confit is fatty and juicy and sparkling with pea greens and spiced cashews. Foie gras terrine with peach compote is almost as noteworthy as the brandade galette with lobster, the mussels with fennel and saffron, the superb scampi risotto, and the leek-chanterelles-and-bacon tart.
Entrées elevate your delight: There’s snapper crackling under glass noodles; spiced duck breast relishing a bath of huckleberry plum wine; rack of lamb in a barely minted, barely put-down-able lamb jus; and a succulent pair of veal tournedos, matched by porcini mashed potatoes. The orange-glazed lobster is citrus smartly used. And the chicken for two is worth fighting over. Okay, sharing.
Thom finally has the look, and it has the dishes. Now it craves more customers. Tag, you’re it. Because Thom – and Soho – needs you in order for it to blossom again.
Industry (food) 509 East 6th Street (212-777-5920). Sunday through Wednesday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Thursday through Saturday to 3 a.m. Appetizers, $10 to $15; entrées, $17 to $21. All major credit cards.
Thom 60 Thompson Street (212-673-1333). Monday through Thursday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to midnight; Sunday to 10 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $18; entrées, $18 to $32. All major credit cards.