“It’s a privaledge to sit around all day bellyacheing about it.” [sic]
These words formed part of a tight scrawl of small black capital letters that meandered over the giant white canvas hanging on the wall behind our table. The painting, Sean Landers’ Stream of Consciousness , was more impressive viewed from afar, when the swirl of words created a pleasant sort of Op Art ripple effect and the sorry state of the artist’s spelling was not discernible (I think Gertrude Stein would have made him write the whole thing out again).
We were sitting in Lot 61, named after its location on city survey maps, a former trucking garage that has become the hot new restaurant in Chelsea.
“Tonight our special is a Godzilla burger,” said our pretty waitress as she brought over the menus. “It’s huge.”
So is the restaurant. The low, faceless brick building, on the far end of a deserted block hard by the West Side Highway, would make a perfect setting for a gangsters’ rub-out in a Mafia movie. But now there is red velvet rope in front and a bouncer at the door. The noise hits you the moment you walk in.
At the front of the restaurant is an immense steel and zinc bar, flanked by a fireplace mounted on a slab of concrete. On a recent evening the bar was packed, and rock music was blaring away. The people looked as though they’d been handpicked from the modeling agencies for a Calvin Klein underwear ad.
The restaurant proper is behind a wall of steel shelving and frosted glass; it’s really more of a lounge, set with plain black tables, 1940’s cast-rubber chairs and sofas (taken from an old insane asylum, no doubt) painted in glossy browns and reds, and banquettes covered in black and beige zebra stripes. The gigantic warehouse space is divided up by screens on steel frames that can be moved back and forth, so rooms can be shut off or divided for private parties.
Now that Chelsea has become Manhattan’s new art center (with over 70 art galleries), it is hardly surprising that the walls of Lot 61 are hung with “site-specific” art-i.e., paintings you couldn’t fit anywhere else except a bank. The artists include David Salle, Vanessa Beecroft, Jorge Pardo and Jim Hodges. A large canvas by Damien Hirst of colored polka dots in straight lines dominates one wall (quite a departure from the flayed cows’ heads or pharmaceutical instruments that decorate his London restaurants). A large all-red painting by Rudolph Stingel hangs on another, adding a warm glow to the space.
Lot 61 is owned by Amy Sacco, former manager of Lipstick Cafe, Vong and Monkey Bar, a tall blonde who was the live-in girlfriend of Le Bernardin chef Gilbert LeCoze when he died of a heart attack four years ago. She also managed System, a discothèque, and she has certainly cornered the market in supermodels and their look-alikes, who were pulling chairs from one table to another, so that several parties seemed to be going on in the room at once.
But as I looked around, I suddenly thought, What’s wrong with this picture? Suddenly I knew: Not a single person appeared to be eating! I know that many models are reported to be suffering from eating disorders, but surely they succumb to food sometimes. What’s more, chef Arlene Jacobs’ menu seems to have been conceived with such people foremost in mind, since it consists almost entirely of appetizer-size portions meant to be shared.
I decided against the Godzilla burger (which was a special in honor of a party for the movie later that night), and instead we made our way through the interesting dishes (called “serious munchies”) on the menu. Some were wonderful, such as the smoked salmon “wrap” with vodka-chive cream cheese, salmon caviar and beet tartare, and the tuna roll with caviar and soy dipping sauce that was a special one evening. Juicy grilled shrimp came with diced mango and cilantro pesto, and mussels were steamed in a Thai-inspired broth redolent with coriander and lemongrass and arranged on a mound of luscious sticky rice. Scallops were also delicious, served with a curious but successful combination of gingered shrimp mousse, prosciutto and wasabi mayonnaise.
Spring rolls, stuffed with hacked duck and served with chili dipping sauce, were terrific one night, rather dry on another. I was intrigued by the “kataifi” rolls, which turned out to be made with rock shrimp, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes nestling in a sort of thatch of fried phyllo dough. I liked the Indian baby lamb chops, too, which were cooked medium-rare and rather spicy, with apple-mint chutney and poppadoms, and the honey-lacquered quail. But the short ribs, braised in beer and served with bone marrow and pickled horseradish, were sensational, silken and falling off the bone-and great with a side order of French fries, which were served Flemish-style, with mayonnaise. Try and slip into a little black dress after munching your way through a plate of those-or the roulade of creamy foie gras mousse and figs with caramelized pears, prosciutto and wild greens.
Desserts include a lovely, warm burnt-sugar apricot upside-down cake, made with a light sponge batter; a rich, dense dark chocolate cake (topped with a sparkler for a friend’s birthday); and a hot mochaccino pudding, served in a mug with a scoop of coffee ice cream on the side.
After dinner, we walked toward 10th Avenue. Opposite was a low white building, the El Flamingo Club, that looked as though it belonged in Miami Beach. It was tightly buttoned up without a sign of life coming from it. Next to that was a taxi garage. The doors were open, and inside we could see rows of cabs on hydraulic lifts. An elderly man passed in front of the garage doors, wheeling a motorcycle with no seat.
“Want a ride?” he called out.
It would probably have been more comfortable than the taxi we took home.
550 West 21st Street
Noise level: High
Wine list: Interesting, but few choices under $30
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Mainly small dishes $5 to $30
Dinner: Monday to Wednesday 6 P.M. to 2 A.M., Thursday to Saturday to 3 A.M.
* – Good
* * – Very good
* * * – Excellent
* * * * – Outstanding
No star – Poor