A First-Date Sort of Place-But Bring Your Own Earplugs

There it was once again: the spine-chilling screech of laughter. I was waiting at the bar in Euzkadi, a crowded bistro in the East Village, when it cut through the room–as P.G. Wodehouse once said of the voice of the dreaded Amanda Glossup–like a herd of cavalry on a tin roof. But the restaurant was so noisy, few people even bothered to look up.

Apart from the decibel level, Euzkadi–tucked away on East Fourth Street between First and Second avenues–is every bit the romantic hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It’s a first-date sort of place, with wine you can afford and appetizers priced in the single digits (not to mention no main course over 15 bucks and $5 desserts). The name means “Basque country,” but with its bare brick walls, candlelit tables and wine racks, Euzkadi looks more like a Village bistro in the 50′s. So many black turtlenecks were crowded into the front room that I half-expected to see a gaggle of Beat poets puffing away in a corner. Instead of cigarette smoke, however, the place was filled with the smell of garlic.

The patron, a tall, lanky fellow who became increasingly harried as crowds of people without reservations kept pouring through the door, had shown my companions and me to the bar, where he offered us a glass of wine on the house, even though it was our own fault that we had to wait for a table. (We were half an hour late; when I had called earlier to tell the restaurant that we couldn’t get there before 8:30 p.m., the man who answered the phone–not the patron–sounded on the verge of hysteria: “I’ve no idea if we can seat you,” he said, and put me on hold, never to return.)

Euzkadi’s small storefront dining room is lined with dark red banquets that also act as a room divider, and the tables are packed in tightly. The shoestring décor is oddly charming, with murky black-and-white photographs of Basque country, Puck prints and antique mirrors (hung with tinsel) decorating the walls and a polished copper counter on the tiny bar, where we nursed our glasses of rather sweet Gascony wine.

The restaurant has a license for wine only–moreover, half the customers look as though they’ve barely reached the legal drinking age. The short list is inexpensive and limited, with the sort of rough French reds and interesting Spanish wines that go with Basque food. (I would have liked to have seen more wines from the Basque country, however.)

The vaguely Arab-sounding tunes of traditional Basque music on the sound system moved on to Peggy Lee and Dave Brubeck, and before long we were shown to a table by the window. Things started looking up when a pungent olive-and-anchovy tapenade was set down with the bread. Smelling the garlic wafting from the kitchen, I was reminded of a friend who used to impress his guests with complex dishes that he served, not “family-style,” but artfully arranged directly onto the individual dinner plates, the way food arrives at a table in a fancy restaurant. When his guests arrived, they were greeted by similar hearty kitchen smells. But unlike the chef here, Serge Buzkowski (who is from Casimir), my friend couldn’t cook at all. Instead, he would fry some garlic in a pan while he heated up a selection of boil-in-the-bag dishes created by Michel Guerard especially for Bloomingdale’s, during the brief period that the department store had a food section.

Euzkadi offers a dozen main courses, many of which are served “à la plancha,” sizzling on a cast-iron skillet. Mr. Buzkowski’s menu features a mix of bistro dishes and traditional Basque specialities, such as a seafood stew with aioli, and codfish cakes with stuffed piquillo peppers. Don’t expect much expertise from the help, though. “Is the grilled pork paillard with escarole and beans a typical Basque dish?” I asked the waitress.

“I wish I knew!” she exclaimed cheerfully before rushing off.

Actually, the most typical Basque dish is canned white asparagus, which is not on the menu. It’s so popular that when the Guggenheim Museum was built in Bilbao, it was nicknamed “the asparagus can.” We began not with asparagus but grilled sardines (marinated with herbs and cooked perfectly) and a wonderful, pungent garlic sausage, served with a warm lentil salad and mustardy dressing. But the cod-cake bacalao, which is normally one of my favorite Basque dishes, was disappointingly bland and dry. Beef carpaccio, a special of the day, was overwhelmed by a powerful balsamic sauce and topped with a mountain of frisee mixed with crumbled Parmesan cheese. You could barely find the meat. A better choice was the plate of charcuterie with onion marmalade or the salad of string beans, beets and walnuts, which was perfectly pleasant as a light first course.

The dishes cooked on the cast-iron skillet would have been better had they spent less time sizzling over the flame. The skate wing with brown-butter caper sauce was dry, and a duck breast with olives, ordered rare, arrived medium-well. Braised rabbit (not a sizzling skillet dish), cooked in a lovely dark sauce made with prunes and cognac, was also dry. One of the best dishes I had was a special of the day, salmon with turnips and chanterelles. It was a curious-sounding combination, but the mix worked: The salmon was very fresh and cooked rare as ordered, and the turnips acted as a foil to the richness of the fish.

Desserts, chalked up on a blackboard, veer from the mundane to the very good. The chocolate cake with pear compote is nothing special and a bit on the dry side, and I’ve had far better prune clafouti than the doughy version offered here. But the quince tarte tatin is terrific, with the fruit nicely caramelized under a light pastry shell. (It could use a dollop of crème fraîche, though.) The chestnut rice pudding was overwhelmed by whipped cream and could have done with a few more chestnuts. You can also get a selection of Basque cheeses ($8), which is a nice way to end dinner.

Were it not for the noise, I would heartily recommend Euzkadi, despite my reservations about the unevenness of the food (at these prices, why quibble?). Perhaps I’ve been to too many loud restaurants recently, but I’m tired of yelling my way through dinner. If you’re made of sterner stuff, though, and you choose carefully, you can eat very well here. And how Basque is it? I don’t think it matters. I’d go back for that garlic sausage with lentils; what could be better on a cold night? Just bring your earplugs.

euzkadi

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108 East Fourth Street

982-9788

dress: Black turtlenecks, fake leopard-skin coats

noise level: High

wine list: Short, inexpensive French and Spanish selections

credit cards: American Express

price range: Main courses, dinner, $13 to $15

hours: Monday to Thursday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to midnight

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no star poor