5 Ninth’s Intense Global Cuisine,
Courtesy of Trusty Mortar and Pestle
“Going to Pastis?” asked the cabdriver when I gave him directions to an address in the meatpacking district. Not quite: Instead, we pulled up on the opposite side of the cobblestone intersection at Gansevoort and Little West 12th, in front of a stand-alone brownstone on the corner that looked like someone’s house. A gaggle of bewildered young women were clustered outside, staring up at the front door. “There’s no sign!”
“It’s just a restaurant,” said one of them with a shrug as they wandered off up Ninth Avenue. No dearth of bars in this neighborhood.
I climbed the steps and pushed open the heavy door, which was made of distressed wood and sported a brass number “5″ above its knocker. Inside I found myself in a dark, parlor-floor bar with loud Brazilian samba filling the air.
“You’re the first,” said the hostess. “You’re welcome to have a drink at the bar until your party is complete.”
Great. Welcome to the wonderful world of trendy meatpacking-district restaurants. Every seat at the bar was taken, so I walked to the back of the room, where a glass wall opened into a delightful garden filled with plants, where people were having cocktails at candlelit tables. But there was nowhere to sit.
“It’s been a long day,” I told the hostess. She relented and showed me up a floating concrete staircase to a dining room on the second floor. The room, as minimalist and plain as a Shaker meeting hall, is understated but dramatic, with a beamed ceiling, a bleached wood floor and two fireplaces-there are six all told in the house. The brick walls are painted white and left bare; the only decorative flourish is a large black-and-white photograph of John Lennon sporting an Elvis button. “That’s to tell you we’re downtown,” said one of my friends when he arrived.
The room is not only elegant; it’s also comfortable and quiet. The polished wood tables, set with votive candles, are placed far apart-unless you’re at one of the deuces against the wall. We were handed small leather-bound menus and a busboy set down a basket of bread, served with homemade ricotta cheese topped with stewed, cured chilies.
Chef Zakary Pelaccio comes via Williamsburg’s Chickenbone Café (now closed), the French Laundry, Daniel and Union Pacific. He calls his food “modern global cuisine;” it is a heady mix of Asian, French and Italian, using local, seasonal ingredients. A mortar and pestle take pride of place in Mr. Pelaccio’s kitchen, which explains the intensity of the aromatic herbs and spices he uses.
Some of the dishes on the 5 Ninth menu sound a little odd. Bacon and beets? The waiter said this was one of his favorites, so I ordered it. Thick, braised bacon lardons glazed with ketjap manis arrived on a salad of yellow and red baby beets mixed with purslane. Underneath was a yellow-orange carrot coulis that had the consistency of mayonnaise. It was wonderful.
One of my guests that night, an artist and intrepid cook, searched the menu with particular curiosity. “I heard they serve lamb heart here,” he said. “I know where I can buy it, but I don’t know what to do with it.” He found it under a section entitled “Noodles and Bread.” The lamb hearts were braised in a tomato-based broth, sliced and served on twists of garganelli pasta topped with parmigiano reggiano cheese. “This is so good I’ll try it at home,” he said.
“I’ll pass,” said another friend in my group, opting instead for the octopus salad. Only a few years ago, this too would have been given a pass by many a New Yorker. Now it shows up on menus everywhere. The octopus, grilled in a cast-iron pan with heirloom tomatoes, savory and purslane, was as tender as I’ve ever tasted.
Mr. Pelaccio likes to “make the familiar strange.” For instance, the batter he uses for a lobster tempura is made with pulverized apricot kernels and blended, cooked sushi rice. The coating is crispier than a regular batter, keeping the lobster moist inside its golden crust. To fresh sweet corn, Mr. Pelaccio adds fresh dates and Thai chilis. This goes perfectly with the grilled baby goat that’s seasoned with a salty rub made with garlic, chili and cilantro-the ribs were cooked until they were soft and creamy, but the rest of the meat was rare and rather tough. Of course, there’s foie gras served with a superb pan-roasted duck, surrounded by poached cherries. Monkfish gets a hearty Mediterranean jolt of green olives and slices of prosciutto.
The most astonishing dish we tasted sounded deceptively simple: steamed loup de mer. The fish, serve whole, was coated with a green paste made of chilis, garlic, fish sauce and lime juice. As you ate it, a gentle, ever-expanding heat started at the back of the throat and rose in your mouth. Pickled young ginger and green papaya added a pleasantly tart note, and the fish-lavishly sprinkled with coriander leaves-sat on a pile of baby Shanghai bok choy.
Our waiter brought over the short dessert menu.
“No ‘choice of sorbets’ here,” said the friend who’d passed on the lamb hearts. “I admire that: It shows backbone.”
These desserts had nothing if not backbone. They were all marvelous. The “chocolate sandwich” was made in a panini press with toasted brioche bread filled with melted chocolate buttons and served like a katsu plate in a Japanese restaurant; a crunchy peanut-butter ice cream came in one of the compartments, a citrus slaw in another. Chocolate mousse came with sticky rice and roasted baby bananas topped with pulverized, caramelized cocoa beans. A blackberry cobbler arrived in a cast-iron pan with a selection of two sorbets: cherry and a white mint chocolate chip. They were tangy and not too sweet, as refreshing as a “trou normand,” the dose of Calvados the French take as a digestif between courses.
The strains of Miles Davis’ trumpet rose up from the crowded bar as we descended the stairs after dinner. Five Ninth is “just a restaurant,” as the woman in the street complained. But what a restaurant! I can’t wait to come back.