Red Cat’s Conservative Cousin Serves Up Crunchy Comfort Fare

Given everything that happened a few blocks away, it’s amazing that the Harrison opened at all. The restaurant, planned for early fall, finally made its debut in late October, when some sense of normalcy had returned to Tribeca. I wanted to show support by going there for dinner right away. Fat chance. It took several weeks of hanging on the other end of the telephone before I was able to get a reservation. After a while, I came to know the mantra by heart: “Yes, we have a table for four, either at 6 o’clock or at 10:30.” When I finally managed to get a table–booked two weeks in advance for 7:15 p.m.–I felt I’d pulled off a major coup.

The Harrison seems to have filled an empty niche in this part of town, where the choice of restaurants (apart from Odeon) veers between the temple of gastronomy, such as Chanterelle or Nobu, and the neighborhood bar. It’s a warm, welcoming place, with a clubby, all-American feel and a menu that is straightforward but not boring–and modestly priced.

The proprietors, Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams, also own the Red Cat in Chelsea, where they’ve built a devoted following. Before opening the Red Cat back in 1999, they polled the neighborhood–which now boasts over 60 art galleries–to find out what their prospective customers wanted to eat. The answer was not cutting-edge fusion cuisine, but simple food at reasonable prices. The Red Cat formula worked so well that the owners didn’t bother to ask the residents of Tribeca what they’d like. And the success of their new restaurant, as I had discovered, was immediate.

The Harrison is every bit as noisy as the Red Cat, especially if you sit along the row of banquettes that divide the dining room from the bar. Perhaps the horrible screeching laugh from the next table did not come from the same woman who had wrecked a pleasant dinner at the Red Cat a couple years ago, but I felt I was reliving the experience at the Harrison as shrill cries of “Oh, my Gaaaaawwwd !” punctuated the din and the woman’s friends egged her on with loud guffaws. Why didn’t they talk about something gloomy to shut her up? I wondered.

The restaurant has taken over the space that formerly housed Spartina, an Italian trattoria. The airy dining room, which seats 90, has French doors on two sides that will open onto the street in warm weather, adding another 45 outdoor seats. The décor is not whimsical like the Red Cat, but plain, even anonymous, with white wainscoted walls, a wood floor and brown leather banquettes. The ceilings are hung with those metal chandeliers topped with little parchment shades that you see in family restaurants. The long bar, made of black walnut, is behind a room divider made of walnut columns bound with strips of steel. I’m told that the Harrison is a hot spot for people in fashion, but unless the open-necked blue shirt or the baggy black sweater is the new look, the customers I saw were dressed as if they hadn’t spent a great deal of time thinking about their clothes, let alone “canoodling” in restaurants. Many of them had probably strolled over from the high-rise apartment buildings across Greenwich Street.

Much has been written about comfort food these days. The term seems to refer to dishes such as macaroni and cheese or meatloaf. Actually, I think what comforts people is crunchy food, and there’s a lot of it on the Harrison’s menu–from the spicy house French fries to the crusted artichokes served in a huge bowl of greens in a lemon Parmesan froth. This crunchy food is one of the keys to the restaurant’s success.

The cooking is American with a bold Mediterranean streak. Chef Joseph Campanaro collaborated with Mr. Bradley (with whom he used to work at the Bryant Park Grill) on the menu, which reflects their shared Italian background. Even the plump grilled sardines were crunchy, but moist under their puffed-up skin; they were served with a chick-pea salad and crumbled feta. Sweetbreads done like saltimbocca was a nice idea. They were wrapped in a layer of seared pancetta, but the bacon rather overwhelmed the delicacy of the sweetbreads, which were served with chanterelles and a Marsala wine sauce. Fried clams were simply great, light and greaseless, and came with a terrific lemon-coriander aioli. It was impossible to stop eating them. Raw sushi-grade tuna was good, too, cut in thick slabs and served with a salad of cucumber, radish and red onion, with parsley and champagne vinegar and a gazpacho sauce.

Skate was shaped like a horseshoe and arrived with a skin so crispy you’d almost think it had been deep-fried. Ruby grapefruit, large cracked green olives, frisée and red onion slices completed the dish, which was served with a citrus emulsion made with grapefruit juice, white wine, butter and chives. But the combination didn’t hang together and the skate was stringy; I would rather have had it the old way, with capers and black butter. The cod, on the other hand, was wonderful, with melted leeks and shiitakes in a delicate porcini broth.

I don’t think I’ve ever had better calf’s liver than the version served at the Harrison. Under a sherry glaze, it was as creamy and melting as foie gras and was served with a layered bacon-onion “torta.” The grilled pork chop was a bit tough and underseasoned. It was accompanied by a hefty portion of toasted orzo with stewed tomato and calamata olives. The pan-crisped chicken could have done with more salt, too, but it had a lovely crisp exterior and was served with a bracing lemon-mustard sauce. A side order of tiny Brussels sprouts, pan-fried and served with maple candied pecans just like a Thanksgiving dish, went nicely, as did the lemon-garlic broccoli rabe. Slow-roasted monkfish was, well, monkfish–poor man’s lobster, and it’s never done much for me. Here the chef had made a valiant effort to make it taste of something other than a wet pillow: He had perked it up with a pancetta brown butter and served it with a spinach risotto that could have stayed a few more minutes on the fire.

Pastry chef Fred Miller, formerly of Daniel, turns out terrific desserts with an American slant. The crunchy lemon-blueberry shortcake with frozen lemon mousse and crème fraîche was great (who cared if the berries were out of season?), as was the quince and apple crisp with ginger ice cream. The chocolate-mousse cake with caramel and the pumpkin tart with praline sauce were also very good, as was the elegant pistachio financier with roasted pears.

The Harrison is an unpretentious, friendly place. It’s not hard to understand why it’s been packed since it opened. Just walk out and look at the eerie bright lights from ground zero, a few blocks away, and it makes sense.

the harrison

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355 Greenwich Street

274-9310

dress: Casual

noise level: High

wine list: 250-bottle list, international and reasonably priced with many out-of-the-ordinary selections

credit cards: All major

price range: Main courses, lunch, $9 to $18; dinner, $17 to $28

lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.

dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11:30 p.m.

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[ [ [ excellent

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no star poor