Once upon a time, there was an oyster that brought fame and fortune to its owner, the proprietor of a London restaurant. In the middle of a cold winter’s night, the restaurateur was awakened by the sound of repeated whistling from the kitchen. Armed with a stick, he crept downstairs and traced the whistle to a barrel of oysters. One oyster had a small hole in its shell and when it breathed, water was forced through the aperture, causing the whistle.
“The next night the oyster set fashionable London alight,” wrote André Launay, who tells the story in Posh Food , a slim volume published there in the 40’s. “Its owner was host to Thackeray and Dickens, among a stream of celebrities who came to listen to the musical mollusk while gobbling up dozens of its less talented cousins.”
If you are lucky you may be served a singing scallop at Philip Marie, a restaurant that opened recently in the West Village. It was the special appetizer one night.
“They sometimes sing when their shells open up,” explained our waitress as she set down a plate of the scallops, which are from Nantucket. Steamed in their fan-shaped shells, they were sweet, briny and delicious, but, perhaps because one of my companions was a music critic, we didn’t hear a peep out of them.
“You never know,” said the waitress when she took the plate away.
It was quite by chance that we were there. For years this corner of Hudson and 11th streets has been jinxed, with God knows how many restaurants opening and closing on it. But one evening, I happened to walk past and saw that the stark dining room of the last occupant, a Spanish restaurant of no interest, had been given a total makeover. Through the tall windows, the room glowed with warm colors and there were candles on the tables. The walls were painted with Thomas Hart Benton-style murals of bucolic country scenes. There was even a potbellied stove. I stepped up and took a look at the menu, which was stamped with a seal that read “U.S.A. Approved Cuisine.” “Mile-high” steak, lamb shank braised in Jack Daniel’s, chicken pot pie–and nothing over $18. It sounded so promising that I returned for dinner.
The place certainly didn’t look jinxed that night. The dining room was full, warm and cheerful, with people having drinks at the long dark-wood bar, and every table taken. When we sat down, a basket containing cornbread and a sliced country loaf was brought to the table.
“It’s like Freshman Commons at Yale,” said the music critic, spreading his cornbread with a thick layer of butter.
The restaurant is owned by John Greco III and his wife, Suzanne. (The name Philip Marie combines their middle names.) He formerly cooked at Cinquanta, a midtown Italian restaurant, where he met his wife; he does the cooking while she oversees the dining room.
Apart from the singing scallops, you can share a pot of excellent mussels steamed in chardonnay with garlic, as a first course. But one of the more intriguing dishes served at Philip Marie is parsley salad. It was not chopped fine enough for the Yale man at our table, who claimed that no one does parsley salad better than the food writer Marion Cunningham. (She gives a recipe for it in one of her cookbooks.) But the rest of us liked the unusual combination of flatleaf parsley tossed with country ham, oven-dried tomatoes and aged Wisconsin Asiago cheese a great deal. Another salad, made with smoked trout, pink grapefruit, radicchio and walnuts was also good, and showed the chef’s deftness in combining different tastes and flavors. It was a better choice than the “hot and spicy” quail with apples, which was not spicy at all, but greasy and charred.
The fish soup, a rich stew of scallops, clams, mussels and fish, was the perfect dish for a cold night. Black ravioli with juicy, tender lobster in a light pink sauce was pleasant (and hardly overpriced at $13.95), but the grilled sea bass with pepper spices was as soft as an eiderdown on its bed of zucchini and potatoes. The “mile-high” sirloin was properly cooked and had good flavor, but the meat was too fatty. The shoestring potatoes with it were hot and crisp, though, and everyone dug into them.
I normally love chicken pot pie, but Philip Marie’s needs work. The crust was fine, but the filling was gluey and lacked flavor. The lamb shank, braised in Jack Daniel’s, was another story. I approached this dish with caution, since although I love much of Southern cooking I find some of it, especially when it involves ingredients like marshmallows or whisky, to be plain weird. (I was once asked by a newspaper to test a recipe Lillian Hellman had sent in: two pounds of tripe simmered in a bottle of sour-mash whisky. It did not make it into the paper.) But Mr. Greco’s lamb shank is wonderful, melting off the bone, served in a rich dark sauce with pine nuts and currants, with a mound of “dirty” rice.
My favorite desserts were the airy pumpkin fritters with walnuts, which were attacked without mercy from all sides, and the white peach sorbet. The gooey rich chocolate hazelnut torte was good, too, and the apple strudel had a nice light pastry.
Around us, the tables continued to turn over. The crowd, which included a white-haired old man in a bright red beret with matching scarf, was jovial, with the air of people who are having a good time and aren’t going to pass out when the bill comes. It looks as though the jinx on this corner has finally been broken.
569 Hudson Street, at West 11th Street
Wine list: Short, reasonably priced
Credit cards:All major
Price range: Main courses $13.50 to $17.95
Hours: Sunday 10 A.M. to 11 P.M., Tuesday to Thursday noon to 11:30 P.M., Friday noon to 1 A.M., Saturday 10 A.M. to 1 A.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor