Tongue Studs With Ice Cream: Flaming Youth at the Red Cat

As everybody knows, the far reaches of Chelsea, neighborhood of parking garages, grungy loft buildings and warehouses, have been transformed over the past couple of years. There are now more than 50 galleries in the neighborhood (and even an outpost of Comme des Garçons). So before opening the Red Cat, in the premises that were formerly Zucca, owners Daniel Abrams and Jimmy Bradley (Mr. Bradley is also the chef) polled the galleries to find out what people in the area wanted.

The answer was a restaurant that served simple, moderately priced food–and had a frequently changing menu. But judging by the décor of the Red Cat, these customers did not want to sit in a place that looked even remotely like their galleries or the sort of art they show in them. In sharp contrast to the gallery one door down, which is all Cor-Ten steel and glass, the Red Cat has a folksy weathered window frame, complete with window boxes filled with rosemary, thyme and impatiens.

When you walk in, you feel as though you have stumbled into a mild version of the sort of Primitive painting that would be shown not in Chelsea, but at the Outsider Art Fair. The walls are wainscoted with red-painted wood from an old Pennsylvania farm, the ceilings crisscrossed with beams and hung with Moroccan lanterns that cast a suffused glow over the front and back dining rooms. Paintings by neighborhood artists hang on the walls.

I showed up for dinner the other evening with two young women I hadn’t seen since they were children. They are now tall, bronzed, sleek as racehorses in their Prada sandals and strappy black T-shirts. One had a large shrimp tattooed on her arm with ” Il camaron ” written underneath. On her back it read “Venus.” “I wanted the Botticelli picture of Venus rising from the shell,” she explained, “but I thought if they didn’t do a good job, it might look tacky.”

Her younger sister stuck out her tongue, revealing a fat metal stud. “I can eat anything with it in, except ice cream cones,” she said. “They’re a pain because the stud gets cold.” These two women, whom I had helped dress as elves for trick-or-treating over a decade ago, now fit right in at the Red Cat. Someone was taking flash photographs of the bar, where a woman in a tank top and sarong skirt was languidly eating radishes, dipping them in a bowl of salt.

The dining room, although comfortable, has a hardwood floor that bounces the sound back up at you, and it was very loud. The aural ambiance was not helped by a woman with a particularly horrible screeching laugh (like a brigade of cavalry on a tin roof, as P.G. Wodehouse once put it). We had to shout to make ourselves heard across the table. To amuse the girls, we ordered a wine called Blockheadia, a Napa sauvignon blanc. The bottle’s brightly colored label had a picture of a clown with a head shaped like a block and was the perfect drink on a hot night: light and floral.

Inspired by the tattoo on our young friend’s arm, we ordered fried shrimp to start. They were served in a crunchy batter flaked with horseradish, heaped in a cocktail glass and accompanied by a salsa of onions, tomatoes and chilies. The batter was a little thick, but the shrimp were juicy underneath.

“Tell us about the time you and Mom served the rubber bait worms,” said one of the young women, who was picking her way through a plate of asparagus topped with slivers of melted Parmesan cheese. Oh dear. Among the many pranks best forgotten, the tale of the anguillettes de terre , as we had called them at the time, was up there, along with the rubber bat Mom put in the salad on another night.

My friend with the tongue stud had begun her dinner with the tuna, which wasn’t a “pain” since it was served not ice-cold but at room temperature: the thick, meaty, rare slices accompanied by a heap of sparkling fresh anchovies was a delicious combination. Her mother had the English pea risotto cake, which arrived afloat on a cream and champagne sauce, surrounded by corn and poached oysters. The grains of rice were creamy inside a crusty exterior, and the whole thing worked beautifully in balancing textures and tastes.

Mr. Bradley’s cooking is American with a Mediterranean touch, and he uses fresh ingredients with pronounced flavors. I’m always happy whenever I can find good calf’s liver, and at the Red Cat, it was sautéed and served in tender slices with crisp, vinegared french fries, roasted tomato and onion confit.

Until they tasted it, the idea of skate wing was about as appealing as rubber bat to the two girls. But they couldn’t resist this version, pan-roasted to a burnished brown, topped with lemon and brown butter. Broccoli is not a vegetable that quickens the pulse, but broccoli rabe is another story. We had it as a side dish and it was very fresh and pleasantly peppery.

“The special tonight is zarzuela, a Spanish seafood stew,” said our waitress. “It’s yummy.” Unfortunately, as it turned out, it wasn’t. It was boring. The broth was faded and lackluster, although the shellfish were perfectly fresh. But a main-course salad of warm lobster chunks with lentils, beets and green beans sprinkled with fines herbes was good, as was the trout. The latter had flesh as pink as Botticelli’s Venus, and was encased in a mustard crust, reclining on a bed of mashed potatoes.

In fact, most of the main courses at the Red Cat were good, but they were outshone by the desserts, which provided the highlight of the meal. They included a light, airy and pleasantly tart lemon pudding cake, garnished with blueberries and topped with crushed amaretto cookies; and a wonderful caramelized banana tart our waitress brought by mistake, which came with slivers of bananas, caramel sauce and a delicious praline ice cream. The crumbly lemon polenta shortcake was also excellent, with peaches, blueberries and whipped cream. And the warm, molten dark chocolate cake with cappuccino ice cream was pleasantly gooey and not too sweet. My friend with the tongue stud, I noticed, finished all her ice cream and didn’t flinch once.

The Red Cat

* 1/2

227 10th Avenue, at 23rd Street

242-1122

Dress: Black

Noise Level: High

Wine list: Interesting, with well-priced and unusual choices

Credit Cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $15 to $22

Dinner: Sunday 4 P.M. to 10 P.M., Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor