Returning recently to the premises that once housed the Black Sheep restaurant in the West Village, I was reminded of a Bette Davis movie called June Bride . She plays a bossy magazine editor who goes to an old Victorian house in preparation for a wedding. Before you can say “less is more,” all the Victorian clutter and moldings and antimacassars and family portraits are chucked out and, to the bemusement of the family living there, the house is transformed into the very latest 40’s streamlined look: pale, sleek and minimal.
The Black Sheep was full of stuff. Several dumpsters must have been enlisted to haul away the contents of the “rustic” French- Italian bistro that was known for serving copious amounts of food. While the name “Black Sheep” reeked of frivolity, Móno suggests an approach that is a bit more serious. It is a small, mercilessly spare restaurant near the Westbeth Theater with two rather featureless dining rooms, dark wood floors, cylindrical sconces, brick-colored walls devoid of pictures and-almost as a wanton afterthought-a little zinc-topped bar near the front door.
In actual fact, Móno is a very nice, friendly neighborhood restaurant and serves delicious food at reasonable prices. On a warm evening when we stopped in, the doors were folded back onto the street, and as we sat down, the sun was setting over the Hudson River and people were strolling by arm in arm, enjoying the evening light. One of the friends I was with had been away from New York since the early 80’s (when she had last been to the Black Sheep) and was now living in Christchurch, New Zealand. When the Queen visited her town recently, she told us, anyone who wanted to could get near enough to take a Polaroid picture (why Polaroid was never made quite clear). Then, without being aware of what she was about to get into, she remarked that although the Queen wouldn’t perhaps be able to exercise quite the same abandon in a walk around New York, the city is much more civilized these days. Immediately, the table launched into an argument about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani which lasted well into the main course.
Móno calls itself-in the no-nonsense manner you would expect from its décor-an American brasserie. The chef, Pat Kotsonis, previously worked at some of Manhattan’s top restaurants, among them Bouley, Les Célébrités, Le Bernardin and Le Cygne. His cooking in this more modest setting is, of course, less elaborate (and with all main courses under 20 bucks, this is hardly a surprise), but it is nevertheless stylish and uncompromising.
Portobellos were new to my friend from New Zealand, for whom the name conjured up Saturday afternoons sweating over trinkets in the London flea market rather than mushrooms the size of a side plate. They arrived in meaty slices redolent of garlic, served over a bed of field greens. Grilled vegetables stacked in a terrine with goat cheese were good, too, with much more flavor than you usually get from this sort of dish. I also liked the smoked trout with apples and shredded horseradish and the mussels, steamed in an American brasserie’s answer to moules marinières: a fennel and leek broth scented with saffron.
So much tuna is served everywhere nowadays it seems to be taking over the world-as someone put it recently, it’s the sun-dried tomato of the 90’s. But I can’t get enough of it. Móno’s tuna tartare was excellent, very fresh and chunky and seasoned with fresh ginger. Tuna appeared again as a main course, grilled this time, but it wasn’t nearly as good. I prefer thicker slices served rare, rather than medium as it was at Móno (I really like it almost raw, like sushi with a crust)-but the pleasantly tart citrus sauce was a good foil with this fish, cutting its fattiness.
Chilean sea bass, which is farmed and doesn’t have much flavor, was cleverly enhanced with fennel, celery and preserved lemons. A flaky wedge of codfish came with what sounded like overkill-peppers, pineapple, capers, lemon and a red grape sauce-but the combination was light, interesting and original, and worked strangely well.
My New Zealand friend had become a vegetarian, so she missed out on the rare, juicy lamb steak, a special of the day served with corn. The shell steak with caramelized onions was also perfectly cooked and had plenty of taste. I liked the combination of spinach with Maytag blue cheese that came with it, too.
Desserts included brazenly rich chocolate squares with chocolate mousse served with espresso sauce, pecan pie and ice cream, and a not very exciting lemon meringue pie. The mango-papaya tarte Tatin, however, was wonderful.
After dinner we strolled down the street into the heart of the West Village, and my friend started to cross against the light. “Watch out,” I warned. “If a policeman sees you, it will cost you 50 bucks. This is not Christchurch. This is New York!”
344 West 11th Street
noise level: Fine
wine list: Short, well chosen and
credit cards: All major
price range: Main courses $15 to $19
brunch: Saturday and Sunday 11 A.M. to 3 P.M.
dinner: Tuesday to Sunday 6 P.M. to 11 P.M.
* * very good
* * * excellent
* * * * outstanding
no star poor
344 West 11th Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Short, well chosen and reasonable
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $15 to $19
Brunch: Sunday 11 A.M. to 3 P.M.
Dinner: Tuesday to Sunday 6 P.M. to 11 P.M.