FORKPLAY August 22, 2016

Who's Noisy? Mimi Nightmare. Burger & Lobster. Zora's Café. Loi Estiatoria.

Dear Friends and Family,    
       What can restaurateurs and their architects be thinking when they fashion dining spots that magnify the assault on our ears? I'm assuming it must be  deliberate: the bare brick walls, the naked ceiling, the pretty glass-wrapping, the bare tables saving on laundry bills. I ask the server a question in my normal, firm, maybe even in my annoyingly aggressive voice and she says, "Sorry, I can't hear you." I want to scream: "Then tell your boss you need sound-proofing."
       It's not such a big deal. At Shuko, architect Richard Bloch used a synthetic sound-absorbing, macaroni-like material in black, wall to wall on the ceiling. At State in the Empire State Building, he had acoustic plaster applied to the art deco coffered ceiling he designed, and carpeted half the floor.
       I recall seeking a somewhat quieter table in the back room at Quality Italian, and having Alan Stillman tell me, "Young people like it noisy." Perhaps he will change his story since his son Michael was forced to install panels at Quality Eats downtown when the youngish crowd recoiled and the servers couldn't tolerate the ferocious din.
       I have a hard time persuading some of my friends to join me in the tintinnabulation at La Sirena. Recently, a food-world friend and I ordered all my favorite dishes, and had a superlative dinner, side by side on a banquette where we could speak directly into each other's ears. Even the tablecloths at Le Coucou don't absorb the uninhibited babel in the popular back room.
       Sitting in the noise pollution at Le Coq Rico last week, I wondered what chef-owner Antoine Westermann could have been thinking to omit some sound-absorbing surfaces. "The same architect who designed the space in Paris, designed this place," our waiter told me. "But in Paris the clients don't make noise."
       Think about that next time you screech and growl to be heard above the tumult. Apparently, we are mindless barbarians.
Nightmare at Mimi
       Somehow a friend had lucked into a reservation for two at impossible-to-book Mimi and just before the date, she managed to change it to a three. It was a  scorching night, and almost as hot inside as my two friends and I entered and tried to stand in the welcomer's solicitation zone without stepping on each other. Very small space, not much aisle. And stifling."Is something wrong with the air conditioning?" I ask.

       "It doesn't seem to be working very well," a gorgeous young woman responds, not quite looking me in the eye.
       "Should we go somewhere else?" I ask my friends. "I don't think they have air conditioning." But the two of them are already seated at the bar discussing labels and ordering drinks. Tito's gin and a Cosmo on the rocks -- a prescription for equanimity.
       "Your table won't be free for a while," the hostess alerts us cheerily. "One of the men just ordered a soufflé." Penny adds an ice cube to her gin and asks her to reserve a soufflé for us, too.
       "We'll have our appetizers here at the bar," we tell the bartender. He folds napkins into triangles and sets them in front of us. "When we opened nobody came for seven months," he confides. "I used to play backgammon all night. Then we got reviewed in the Village Voice and it's been full like this ever since."
       We taste and pass. I'm excited to see a classic pâté en croûte with strong gel under its top crust. My rabbit ballotine with peach is elegant and delicious, too. Penny purrs over billows of Bibb lettuce with picholine olives as if it were three-star exotica.
       We eye the table for four at the back. "Are they almost finished?" I ask. That's not our table, we're told. We're getting the table for two. The hell with that. We'll stay at the bar. By the time we've ordered, waited, photographed, tasted and traded the tasty-but-not-quite-rare-enough-pork-chop (my fault, I said "pink"), the juicy roast chicken with potato dumplings, and the rich Parisian gnocchi with brandade cream, I'm soaking wet. My hair is sticking to my neck. Penny has overheated too.
       But we've already ordered the peanut butter and gingerbread soufflé for two. Just as it arrives, someone throws open the huge front window. It's cooler outside. A breeze wafts in. The server breaks open the crown of the balloon, and pours in marshmallow crème anglaise. I can't remember a soufflé this good. It might be one of the best soufflés I've ever satin. It's been a very good dinner in Hell. 185 Sullivan Street between Houston and Bleecker. 212 418 1260.

Tasty Fixations: Burger & Lobster
       "Why are we here?" Diane asks as I duck around a pile of garbage on 19th Street, ignoring a clot of sidewalk loiterers, and step into the vast space that is Burger & Lobster. Inside, we collide with another undisciplined crush. I'd heard this place usually has a line. I walk around to reach the greeter at her podium from the other side.
       "Do you make any special accommodations for the elderly?" I ask, leaning on my cane and limping a little. (It's true I am recovering from an injury to my foot, and I'm still carrying the cane in case the curb is higher than it needs to be. It's also good for getting taxis to screech to a stop.)
       "What is this place?" Diane asks. "We'll be waiting for hours."
       I point to the sign that shows the menu. Just three choices: A burger with fries and a salad, a lobster roll with fries and a salad or a whole lobster with fries and a salad. Twenty dollars each. "That's the menu?" she asks. Click here to read more about Burger & Lobster.
A Pocketful of Soul
       It's just after 9 pm Thursday. The three of us fantasize a finale of peach cobbler and, sure enough, Zora's Café's peach cobbler is on the way. It's quiet. Zora and her mother have left. The brand new soul food endeavorseems to be fading for the night, so far undiscovered.
       At that moment, a burly young man who has been eating alone up front with a rotation of staff in attendance stands in the doorway. "I just had dinner," he says, addressing the narrow cubbyhole of a room. "It's my first time here. This food is wonderful. I'm coming back." Everyone applauds.
       Well, I'm loving Zora, too. Our friend Michael works around the corner and he's excited to find a new haven for lunch. Virginia-born Lyn, a disciplined eater, takes seconds, or is it thirds, of the "Southern Potato Salad," so like that of her beloved Shenandoah Valley granny. Click here to read more about Zora's Café.
In the dark with the Martha Stewart of Greece 
       No one will ever take Maria Loi to court for modesty. But someone should tell her the banquette at Loi Estiatorio is too low for the table or the table is too high for the seat, and the muted lights are not romantic, they're gloomy. There shouldn't be long, unsightly cucumber clots in the tzatziki. And the stuffed octopus on fava purée needs some seasoning oomph.
       But if all you want is fresh, Greek branzino, exquisitely cooked and boned in the kitchen, and don't  mind paying $36, you will forgive any mishap. The warmed pougi (it means pouch) holding a paste of feta, yogurt and sun dried tomatoes that the server unwraps as an amuse, with pita strips and cookies to spread it on, is exceptional, too. And stay for dessert. Order the yogurt that comes with honey and nuts - in our case, desserts arrived as a gift from the kitchen. Whole Foods will be carrying her yogurt very soon, Loi needy announces. And her olive oil and her cookbook and...everything else. The woman is endlessly entrepreneurial. And she feeds the needy hungry, too. She doesn't call herself the "Martha-you-know-who" for nothing. 132 East 58th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 212 713 0015.

Today's Forkplay colors are royal blue and turquoise just because.


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Photographs of a waiter filling cannoli in the raucous din at Quality Italian, Nick Kim in reverie at sound-proofed Shuko, the gnocchi at Mimi, Mimi's pâté en croûte, the monster burger at Burger & Lobster, the fried chicken and potato salad at Zora's Café, the glamorous Maria Loi, and Loi Estiatorio's impeccable branzino may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.


Gael Greene | 160 West 73rd Street apt. 5J | new york | NY | 10023