Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bowery Hums

Is it fair to say that Keith McNally has fallen behind the curve when the curve has ceased to exist? The restaurateur has finalized plans to open a brick oven pizzeria on the corner of Bowery and Houston. As if on cue, neighborhood preservationists got in a lather, with the jeremiads about the death of yet another New York neighborhood coming fast and furious. But the hand-wringing over the Bowery, until recently an iconic preserve of downtown derelicts, comes a day late and a dollar short. In the last year or so, the strip’s restaurant supply stores, flophouses and methadone clinics have come to stand beside a Whole Foods monstrosity, the gleaming New Museum of Contemporary Art and chic Bowery Hotel.

McNally is renowned for restaurants that open in “frontier” neighborhoods, quickly giving them a respectable polish. Tribeca, SoHo, the Lower East Side, the Meatpacking District: all once-bohemian enclaves turned into real estate, shopping or nightlife meccas. Of course, McNally alone cannot be credited (or more likely blamed) for gentrifying these hoods: the Lower East Side had already ceded much of its skuzzy charm to slumming uptowners when Schiller’s set up shop and pioneers like Florent Morellet ran Meatpacking strongholds before Pastis made the area’s cobblestone streets safe for stilettos. Whether you view a McNally opening as an expiration or certification of cool, it signals a change.

Lately though, McNally’s Midas touch has lost its luster. Morandi opened in 2006 on a firmly established stretch of 7th Avenue in Greenwich Village. Its rustic Italian menu and interiors represented a departure from his patented French bistro formula. It generated the inevitable Page Six mentions and opening week excitement. But reviews were lukewarm at best- Frank Bruni’s Times takedown of the restaurant and its chef, Jody Williams, caused a minor kerfuffle, with McNally accusing the critic of sexism- and the restaurant never became quite the destination that previous McNally entries had.

I suspect McNally will be fine. He is alone among the A-list or New York restaurateurs for claiming a roster of spots-The Odeon, Lucky Strike, Balthazar, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, Pastis- where the buzz generates itself, unmoored to celebrity designers or chefs. The spaces are handsome but restrained, the decor unlikely to induce the acid flashbacks of a Jeffrey Chodorow dinner. The chefs are competent but unfussy, serving straightforward bistro fare- burgers, steak frites, croquet monsieur’s- to customers seeking a respite from occasionally pretentious greenmarket hegemony on one end and molecular Petri dishes like deep-fried mayonnaise on the other.
McNally may not be the first member of the establishment to colonize the Bowery. But it’s tough to fault him for not putting a new neighborhood on the map when, at this point, the Manhattan map is very clearly drawn. Given McNally’s track record and the genial buzz his restaurants often produce, the imminent pizzeria will likely add to the bustle of the new Bowery, even if it doesn’t create it.

No comments: