A Cursed West Village Space Is Finally Blessed by Inside

The space at 9 Jones Street has seen so much turnover in the past

few years that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it holds some dark secret

that departing tenants are sworn never to reveal if they wish to get out of the

lease alive. Yet it’s in a great location on a charming little street in the

West Village, right next-door to one of the best butcher shops in the city, the

Florence Prime Meat Market. Now Anne Rosenzweig has moved in with her former

chef from the Lobster Club, Charleen Badman, who is co-owner and in charge of

the kitchen. Their idea, she says, is to create “an affordable, fun spot.”

And affordable it is. Main courses at the Lobster Club, which was

just off Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, started at $18.50 for a bowl of

pasta. At Inside, there’s nothing on the menu more than $18 (and that’s for

their lamb chops), so it’s a bargain even if you have to take a cab from the

Upper East Side to get there.

When I walked in on a recent evening, the friend I was meeting

was at the bar, fulminating over a glass of red wine. On his way over, he had

strolled past what used to be the Phoenix Bookshop, just around the corner. For

years, the store was as much of a Village institution as Murray’s Cheese Shop,

Ottomanelli’s and Faicco’s Pork Store, and was as famous for its cranky owner

as its rare books. “The bookshop’s now a Wash ‘n’ Fold!” said my friend. “I

can’t believe it! It’s not even a Wash ‘n’ Dry!”

The thought of damp, neatly folded laundry piled on shelves that

had formerly displayed highly prized volumes of out-of-print books was

certainly depressing. But apart from the bookshop’s demise and the jinx that

has made for a steady stream of new faces at 9 Jones, this neighborhood has

changed very little.

“Inside” is not exactly a

poetic name for a restaurant, any more than if the owners had called it, more

appropriately,”Insides.” There’s something rather strange about the way it’s

been designed that makes it hard to define. It looks not quite authentic, as

though it had been assembled from a kit by foreignerswho’dnever

actuallybeento a restaurant in Greenwich Village. The long, narrow dining

room has a wood floor and brick walls that make it quite noisy (especially in

addition to the buzzy Latin music on the sound system). Machine-made African

maskslinethe walls likehuntingtrophies, and the tables are set with papercloths

andvotives wrapped in strips of old menus. At the front of the room is

along,polished mahoganybar whereyoucan snack on fried oysters or mussels with

ginger andcoconut,and look out the window in search of the infamous editorial

directorwholiveson the block.Thedécor combines all the elements needed to

create a homey, casual atmosphere with a slightly bohemian edge, but it’s one

degree off. The friendly staff, however, looks great in flattering black

turtlenecks (especially the pretty blond Croatian hostess who pairs hers with

black leather pants), as though they were about to sit for a portrait by Richard

Avedon.

Anne Rosenzweig came on the scene about 20 years ago with Arcadia

on the Upper East Side, where she quickly established a following for her

innovative yet down-home American cooking. After a brief period at the “21″

Club, where she made an abortive attempt to wean the customers off chicken

hash, she opened the Lobster Club (named for her famous sandwich), which she

sold last spring. Now at Inside, she and Ms. Badman (who spent her vacations

cooking at Chez Panisse) have put together a short menu that changes weekly.

The food, which my companion summed up as “postmodern home cooking,” is exactly

what people seem to be in the mood for these days: dishes such as brisket with

tzimmes, liver and onions, and roast chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. One

first course, fingers of romaine with bacon, egg and blue cheese, suggested a

Betty Crocker–era appetizer. Instead, as my friend pointed out when it was

placed on the table, “That looks kind of like a salad.” And a familiar one, at

that: a variation on the Cobb, with crisp diced bacon, chunks of cheese and

hard-boiled eggs.

In the 1950′s, shrimp cocktail was the rage; now it’s fried

shrimp. The ones at Inside go down like potato chips, and you eat them shells

and all, dipping them in a vinaigrette made with Concord grape juice. They are

twice-cooked: first flash-fried and tossed in Szechwan pepper, rice-wine

vinegar, ginger, garlic and oil, then dredged in cornstarch, salt and crushed

peppercorns and fried again to order. Briny fried oysters are good, too, juicy

under a crunchy coating of buckwheat flour and cornmeal, served with a

remoulade. You can also get these as a snack at the bar.

The beef-brisket recipe comes from Ms. Rosenzweig’s grandmother.

The meat is covered with onions and cooked in a very low-temperature oven, then

served with a tzimmes (a sweet vegetable stew) made with dried apricots, sweet

potatoes, carrots and raisins. It’s pleasant without being particularly

memorable. The same goes for the veal, braised for nine hours, no less, and

served with roast pumpkin and kale. I was more impressed by the thin, perfectly

cooked slices of liver, garnished with onions, lardons and roast turnips, and

finished with a light reduction of red-wine vinegar and veal stock. You can

also get gargantuan side orders of sweet-potato fries with lemon aioli (they’re

a bit soft) and creamed spinach.

Ms. Badman comes up with unusual combinations that are spot-on,

such as prosciutto served with a delicate panna cotta infused with thyme and

marjoram on a salad of arugula and roasted plums with a balsamic vinaigrette.

Roast quail, marinated in soy sauce and sake, comes with dark slices of glazed

Japanese eggplant. Lamb chops have a deep, burnished color from a marinade of

pomegranate juice, mint and garlic; they’re broiled and arranged on a heap of

flageolets and spinach. Crisp-skinned roast trout is stuffed with Jerusalem

artichokes, onions and dill, then cooked in white wine, fish stock and butter.

Desserts are terrific. They include a browned apple and

gingerbread clafoutis seasoned with vanilla bean,  panna cotta with chilled plums, and an

almond-crusted banana split with chocolate malt balls and hot fudge. The

crackling pecan tart on a puff-pastry shell with caramel sauce and vanilla ice

cream renders old-fashioned pecan pie obsolete. And Ms. Rosenzweig’s famous

chocolate bread pudding from Arcadia is just great, like a very tender brownie

with brandy custard sauce.

The peanut brittle that comes with the check is a pleasant

surprise-as is the check itself, which, with its single-digit appetizers and

desserts, could almost be from another era. There aren’t many places serving

food this good at these prices. With any luck, Inside will be the one to break

the jinx on 9 Jones Street.