Monday, January 30, 2006

Shabby Chic New York City Entry #63

When preparing to leave chef Zac Pelaccio's 5 Ninth (on the edge of the Meatpacking District), a diner is given a postcard image of the neighborhood from a century back. An elevated train line is being raised in a district that had seen better days. This is still another quarter of laboring New York. The el has been and gone, and the district thrives mixing townhouses and industrial spaces: Dancehall Gotham. Such a vision of history is shared to evoke nostalgia for a world that customers can barely imagine, while they consume skate marinated in lemongrass and monkfish braised with Sichuan bean paste. The wacky strain between the authentic and the postmodern is palpable, as in so many gentrifying corners of Manhattan.

From the outside 5 Ninth's townhouse seems edging towards condemnation. Entering one realizes that the restaurant has been carefully contrived to that end. The design team was challenged to create a workingman's restaurant that the beau monde could love. Everything from the carefully constructed wood planks to the airless bathrooms tries to persuade that we are in 1906. Everything until the menu arrives. We soon learn that this is contemporary American cuisine filtered through Singapore nights. Not a single item - even for sentiment sake - could be imagined by the one-time residents of Gansevoort Street. Fingerling potatoes, honey tangerines, and always radicchio?

Still, in 2006 these treats are perhaps not so exotic. While Pelaccio develops a distinctive flavor palette, Nouveau Amerasian, he operates within the constraints of Manhattanite cuisine. And, at its best, his choices are impressive.

Best of the three courses was my appetizer, Veal Bacon and Egg Congee, cooked in a clay pot with Chili Paste and Shiitake mushrooms. I had recently dined at Chinatown's Congee Village, and found this to be a shrewd reconstruction of the more traditional porridge. The congee had a discerning artfulness not found in Chinese country cuisine, and the veal bacon was explosive with taste. Pelaccio's traditional preparation made this one of the most impressive fusion efforts that I have recently encountered.

As an entree I selected the Loup de Mer (a variety of seabass), steamed, and served with chili lime paste, ginger, and cilantro and bok choy greens. The fish, otherwise well cooked, was swimming in a soupy essence that detracted from the plate, making the ginger, cilantro, and greens watery and limp. With less liquid this would have been a much improved dish, although even so, the sushi-grade ginger dominated.

I admired the idea for dessert, persimmon cake and coulis, served with cashew-vanilla ice cream. The nuts added an odd saltiness to the vanilla scoop, which at its best should have a purity of taste. The persimmon cake was tasty, particularly when its slight dry cakiness was combined with the ice cream or the persimmon dice. Pelaccio evoked an haute Asian dessert. With a little custard tinkering and some cake moistening, this would have been a startling ending.

Unlike Pelaccio's more hectic Fatty Crab around the corner, 5 Ninth is a restaurant that directs attention to his culinary choices. If 5 Ninth can't quite decide whether it aspires to the exotic street life of old New York or of old Kuala Lumpur, we can suffer the chef his shabby fantasies. In the end it is our own culinary fantasies that may transform Gansevoort into the chic of Araby.

5 Ninth
5 Ninth Avenue (at Gansevoort St.)
Manhattan (Meatpacking District)

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