Saturday, January 28, 2006

Training Wheels New York City Entry #61

Friday evenings in Chelsea have altered so much over the past three decades that one empathizes with H. G. Wells’ time travelers. Each visit to Tenth Avenue jolts those chronologically impaired.

Chelsea once was a working class quarter, Hell’s Kitchen South, one of a string of working-class neighborhoods huddling on the edges of Manhattan Island, dockland and dirty factories from the time when this city fabricated and shipped things, and not just ideas. New York was a city whose rivers were sewers; the island was a glittering core swaddled in slums huddled on the banks of the filth. In time, Chelsea was colonized by hoods, thugs, dealers, working girls, and other professionals of the night. These yeomen could not withstand the onslaught of gay men spilling out of the village, searching for real estate and ‘tude, soon assisted by the demimonde of the art world. Chelsea became SoHo, as SoHo is a TimeWarner streetscape. The young artiste has a Manolo firmly planted in Chelsea and a workboot in Billyburg. Yet, whatever Chelsea was, is and will be, the constant is restaurants, continually renewed but always needed. On a recent Friday night Chelsea restaurants were aflutter and abuzz.

The grande dame in Chelsea’s latest incarnation is The Red Cat, opened in 1999, named after the proprietor’s grandfather’s Rhode Island boat. Despite a name conjuring lazy, wavy afternoons on Narragansett Bay and a design that, were it less crowded, might suggest a New England summer retreat, The Red Cat is pure energy from the puckery radishes on the bustling bar to the fiery red banquettes and metal lanterns, from the display of contemporary prints by local artists to the blur of self-satisfied conversations of the soon-to-be rich and famous.

Chef Bill McDaniel’s menu is in the Craft mold, American culinary catholic. No longer do chefs strive to be self-conscious fusion gazetteers, but eclecticism is bred-in-the-bone. I began with an appetizer special: sea diver scallops on a citrus salad with frisee and orange emulsion, as representative of this style as I can imagine. The dish suffered from scallops not so lissome as the diners. Their chewiness suggested that perhaps the kitchen was offered a wholesaler’s deal, too tempting to resist. The bivalves’ accompaniment were so pleasant that I grieved that the seafood could not match. The citrus salad was composed with baby segments of clemantine, grapefruit, lemon, and other C-boosters. With a scallop of a mild mien the dish would have excelled. My taste of fillet mignon tartar revealed a solid version of that staple with the nice addition of a warm quail egg.

As main course, I selected Sauteed Muscovy Duck Breast with Sweet and Sour Delicata Squash with Scallion and Rice Salad. I enjoyed this wild poultry, particular with the squash hash. It lacked a sweet/sour tension, but the richness of the squash complemented the duck with wintery eloquence. The dish didn’t strive too hard and lacked any hint of fussiness. If the duck was not as gamy what a more ambitious restaurant might serve, it was perfectly cooked, and was most amiable. The light tempura of green beans with a sweet/hot mustard would have been a most delicious cinematic snack. It was light and yet rich with batter. The mustard, more sweet than hot, could lead to a night-long snack.

Dessert was a coconut flan - a panna cotta - perched on sweet pastry, surrounded by a bay of exotic fruits. The fruit were jewels on a plate, deep tart, sparkling, brilliant gems. The coconut pudding was light and cool, built on the cookie below.

Whenever I eat at restaurants like The Red Cat, I study those several decades and many pounds my junior and wonder what it means. Cat has a menu adventurous without being philosophical, a kitchen talented without being impeccable, a bill sensible without being absurd, servers who are enthusiastic and imperfect, and a room that is lively but lacking the hush of discernment. The Red Cat is haute cuisine with training wheels. Chelsea 3.0.

The Red Cat
227 10th Avenue (at 23rd Street)
Manhattan (Chelsea)

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