The social clubs of Little Italy, where mobsters reputedly did business at the pool table or over a game of cards in the back room, aren’t places you’d expect to find blood-orange dipping sauce with your calamari, or rabbit-and-ginger sausage on your tagliatelle. But Wyanoka, concealed behind a glass door marked simply with a “W” at 173 Mott Street, has a history as eclectic as the food it now serves. According to Christopher Santos, the chef and co-owner, an Irish club came up with the name when they opened at that address sometime in the late 19th century. (During the potato famine of the 1840′s, Indian corn was sent to Ireland as a relief measure, and later, when Irish immigrants settled in Little Italy, they sometimes named their social clubs after Native American tribes.) In the 30′s, the place became an Italian social club of the same name, and the owners painted an Indian in a feathered headdress on the front of the building that’s still there today.
The small, cream-colored restaurant, which is comfortable and beautifully lit, would look right at home in a trendy Art Deco boutique hotel on Miami Beach. The windows are hung with open white Venetian blinds; more blinds act as space dividers and conceal the light fixtures in the two long dining rooms, which have dropped ceilings and long banquettes and are decorated with pale sprays of orchids. The bathroom is hilarious, with fish tanks in the walls (I only spotted one fish) and no light. Four black-and-white TV monitors hang over the bar, showing views of the fish tanks as well as the interior of Double Happiness, the basement lounge next door that is owned by the same people. Down a steep, narrow flight of steps, Double Happiness is dark and pulsing with music, with candle-lit tables hidden away in nooks. According to the owners, it was once, of all things, a mob-run gay speakeasy.
Mr. Santos, formerly at Rue 57 and Time Cafe, works out of a kitchen so small it could break a man made of lesser stuff. But his ambitions are clear when you sit down to a table set with bowls of fleur de sel and green extra-virgin olive oil. The eccentric wine list has such oddities as a Nebbiolo Rosato, an Italian rosé made from barolo and barbaresco grapes. This wine was the perfect choice for the roast rabbit, which came wrapped in a thin layer of crisp prosciutto and set on a mound of mashed Yukon Gold potatoes studded with black olives. It was topped with whole roasted garlic cloves in a Spanish sherry sauce. Just before he sent out the dish, Mr. Santos sprinkled it with truffle shavings and a powerful truffle oil. A lot going on? Too much, perhaps. But the rabbit was tender and moist and the wine dry and intense, acidic enough to stand up to all the different flavors.
One evening at the next table, a man and his daughter were extolling the virtues of their dinner–especially the yellow tomato soup, which, the man said, was the best he’d ever had.
“What was the secret ingredient?” he asked the chef, who had come out of the kitchen to greet him and was sitting next to him.
Orange peel, he said, explaining how he’d roasted the tomatoes with orange peel and thyme. The soup had a lot of other things going on, too: crabmeat dumplings, chive oil and strips of crispy fried bacon. But the man was right: It’s a very good soup.
Mr. Santos’ lobster stew was a dizzying concoction, too. While it seemed to have started life as a perfectly normal lobster bisque, the chef decided to take it on a trip to Thailand, adding snap peas, carrots, shiitakes, lemongrass, ginger and Thai basil along the way, finishing up with a good dose of coconut milk. But this baroque style got to be a little much when he confronted scallops and foie gras. He seared them both and served them with a warm apple-cider vinaigrette made with pan juices. If this weren’t already enough, he added roasted fennel, dried orange peel and frisée with pine nuts. Has he never heard Escoffier’s famous maxim, ” Faites simple! “?
Despite the overlayering, Wyanoka is an endearingly quirky restaurant with sweet, friendly service and inexpensive food. It’s uneven, but depending on what you order, you can eat very well. The sushi-grade tuna roll was pristinely fresh and served with wasabi crème fraîche and a salsa made from nectarines, red onion and fried ginger. Juicy chicken satay with hoisin peanut sauce–five skewers with half a breast on each–was enough to feed two as a main course.
Minefields, however, included the heavy calamari rolled in cornmeal; a mess of a salad made with green lettuces, frisée, corn, baby tomatoes and Cabrales (a Spanish goat cheese); and awful ravioli with aged goat cheese that tasted like old socks. Pan-roasted snapper was done up like paella, on saffron rice with clams, oven-dried tomatoes, artichokes, chorizo, mussels, lemon and olive oil–albeit with soggy rice.
The hamburger was another story. Mr. Santos uses certified dry Angus aged beef, and the secret to his wonderfully juicy burger is to mix some high-fat European butter into the meat so it doesn’t dry out, even if you order it well-done. The portion was generous and came with chipotle barbecue sauce, smoked Gouda, charred red onion, bacon and phenomenal crisp, golden hand-cut fries. It was one of his best dishes, and was only $11. Hanger steak also had good flavor, set on a soft Roquefort and corn flan, and topped with crispy leeks, roasted garlic, bacon and balsamic sauce.
Desserts, arriving on plates sprinkled with snow flurries of confectioners’ sugar, were homey and satisfying. The pumpkin cheesecake had a ginger-snap-cookie crust and warm caramel on top; a dark, rich chocolate cake was topped with crunchy pecans and graham cracker crumbs and paired with caramel ice cream.
The man and his daughter were having the Valrhona chocolate fondue, which came in one of those sets your mom consigned to the basement. I had not been much impressed when I’d ordered it a week earlier–chocolate sauce with chopped strawberries, shortbread and slices of banana not being my idea of a great dessert. But Mr. Santos said he usually serves it with pound cake and homemade marshmallows, too. Clearly the people at the next table were getting the works.
“My wife loves chocolate,” said the man. “I’d hate for her to miss this. Would you mind very much wrapping it up so we could take the rest home to her?”
“Of course,” said the chef without missing a beat, and he disappeared with the fondue into the tiny kitchen.
That’s Wyanoka, ready for anything. When it comes to some of the cooking, however, I wish the chef would just hold back. As for the fondue, I am still wondering how those people got it home.
173 Mott Street (between Broome and Grand streets)
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: International, reasonably priced
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard
Price range: Main courses $11 to $19
Dinner: Monday to Wednesday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Thursday to Saturday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor