It’s an old parlor-game question among those of us who spend too much time cogitating on the elusive qualities that go into the making of a successful New York restaurant: Can a talented chef overcome the curse of a perpetually doomed piece of real estate? Lately, the answer would seem to be yes. David Chang runs his impressive empire out of a series of previously forlorn storefronts in the East Village, after all, and all over Brooklyn (and elsewhere), ambitious young cooks are turning abandoned, tumbledown venues into restaurant destinations at an alarming rate. But in the quirky world of edible Manhattan, the myth of the haunted, destined-to-die space still survives. Some locations are cursed by an irredeemably grim internal feng shui (no windows, stunted ceilings, etc.), others by a tragic location (avoid busy stretches of avenues and the undersides of major bridges), a hopeless neighborhood (even Chang hasn’t opened yet on the Upper West Side), or simply the unquiet spirits of failed establishments that came before them.
Joey Campanaro’s latest restaurant, Kenmare, occupies one such recently haunted address: 98 Kenmare Street, on the fringes of Little Italy. The low-ceilinged dining room receives only a few stray rays of sunlight during the day, and as you eat your dinner, vibrations from the nearby 6 train rumble ominously underfoot. For years the awkward space was home to an old Italian restaurant, but for the past decade it’s been mostly vacant (a short-lived restaurant called Civetta was the last tenant). But now Campanaro, who runs the storied West Village bistro the Little Owl, has joined forces with those practiced nightlife entrepreneurs Paul Sevigny (Beatrice Inn) and Nur Khan (Rose Bar). They’ve refined the lighting and painted the low ceilings a soft fresco pink. Sprays of flowers have been placed here and there around the dining room, and the clunky, dark tabletops have been replaced with squares of slick white marble. The new upstairs bar is made of polished marble, too, and the terminally gloomy space in the basement has been refashioned as a private dining room outfitted with a D.J. booth and a coat of glowing white stucco.
At least on the surface, this radical cosmetic surgery seems to have had an edifying effect. Sevigny’s subterranean space recently won approval from the city to stay open until 4 a.m. (perhaps fearing the fate of Sevigny’s city-shuttered Beatrice Inn, Kenmare officially closes at midnight for now). And with its crowded bar and breezy new Mediterranean color scheme, the upstairs space already exudes a bustling, even buzzy sense of occasion. But at this early date, any similarity between the cooking at Kenmare and Campanaro’s other popular restaurants is, alas, purely incidental. The talented young chef made his name serving the kind of elegant comfort-food bistro cuisine (smothered pork chops, “gravy” meatball sliders, the Little Owl’s legendary bacon cheeseburger) that tends to work best in casual, neighborly surroundings. But Khan and Sevigny don’t specialize in cozy neighborhood joints. They’ve designed Kenmare to be a combination of a fine-dining and a nightclub-scene restaurant, like Serge Becker’s glamorous taco joint, La Esquina, down the street. And although Campanaro’s stolid, connect-the-dots menu doesn’t detract from the clubby glitter of the operation, there’s a nagging feeling that it should be adding more.
The last time I dropped by the Little Owl, the soup on the menu was a smooth, impeccably creamy lobster bisque scattered with fresh chives; at Kenmare, the featured soup is a swamp-green concoction made with puréed broccoli and beer, and tasting more of salt than of either ingredient. Campanaro’s beloved meatball sliders are on the menu here, but instead of coming three to a plate for $12, they’re served individually, for five bucks a pop. The other appetizers include rolls of tuna carpaccio wrapped around dabs of avocado (quite good), overly gummy gnocchi sunk in a curiously dull short-rib ragù (not so good), and an asparagus “gratin” (chopped endive and asparagus bound in melted Fontina), which tastes interesting enough but looks like it’s just emerged from the blender at home. The “market risotto” appetizer, folded with truffles and an egg yolk, was excellent one evening but radically overcooked the next, and a promising-sounding helping of shrimp-and-lobster spaghetti turned out to be a drab combination of overcooked seafood, dank pasta, and underspiced fra diavolo sauce.
The spare, eight-dish entrée list has a similarly perfunctory feel, but it contains more of the classic Campanaro flourishes. One of my dining companions had only nice things to say about his veal cutlet, which was pounded thin in the Milanese style and garnished with fresh-made salsa verde and wedges of lemon. The three decent seafood options on the menu are the swordfish (expertly grilled, and served with fingerling potatoes and caramelized discs of fennel), a pink, crunchy-skinned fillet of arctic char, and an ivory-white block of crispy halibut (propped on a mound of mashed “Stroganoff” potatoes shot through with chives and butter). To replace his signature pork chop from the Little Owl, Campanaro has come up with a less substantial dish called “the Chicken” (sautéed chicken breast over a soupy mix of butter beans and smoked chicken-leg confit). If you’re a serious meat eater, order the New York strip instead (courtesy of Pat La Frieda) or the grilled lamb T-bones, which are soaked in a honey marinade and scattered with nuggets of toasted orzo.
Is this kind of competent, somewhat rudimentary cooking enough to lift the curse of 98 Kenmare Street? Who knows. On the evenings I was there, no one in the crowd of dark-suited lounge lizards and animated bridge-and-tunnel party girls clustered around the bar seemed to care. They sipped chilled flutes of Prosecco, and bright, sugared-infused $12 cocktails concocted by the fashionable London mixologist Charlotte Voisey. The house desserts, for their part, are a mix of hastily conceived comfort-food items (chocolate-chip cookies smeared with Nutella, a root-beer float spiked with already-melted gelato) and formulaic standbys (molten chocolate cake, beignets flavored with bananas). But if you’re pining for the down-home elegance of Campanaro’s earlier restaurants, end your meal with the old-fashioned cobbler, which is baked with a crumbly crisp of sugar on top and filled with wild berries and a tangy, sweet, springtime dose of rhubarb.
Address: 98 Kenmare St., nr. Mulberry St.; 212-274-9898
Hours: Dinner Monday to Saturday 6 to midnight, Sunday to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $14; entrées, $21 to $32.
Ideal Meal: Tuna carpaccio, Colorado lamb T-bones, wild-berry-and-rhubarb crisp.
Note: Campanaro will begin serving a signature Nur Burger when the restaurant opens for lunch later this month.
Scratchpad: Is this the hipster version of the Little Owl? No, it’s not. But we’ll give half a star for the deft makeover, and another half for the entrées.