Five Points, a bright blue and white outpost on a scruffy street in NoHo, is named after a notorious gang of Prohibition-era bootleggers. They once had a clubhouse on the same block between Lafayette Street and the Bowery. Great Jones Street is still pretty dingy, despite patches of gentrification, but the restaurant, which was a trucking garage and before that a stable for the Astor family’s horses, hardly brings bootleggers and gangsters’ molls to mind. Instead you are more likely to come across a couple like the one at the adjacent table on a recent night. The man sported a short-sleeved, open-neck plaid shirt; his beaming wife was in black and white polka dots. “We’re from Maine,” he told the waitress. “Do you know where that is?”
They were seated, as we were, next to the long (24 feet to be exact) trunk of oak tree that divides the dining room down the middle. The tree is hollowed out like a trough and a stream of
The curve of the maple basket-weave ceiling and the row of small, high square windows on either side (which at night cast an amber glow over the room) are the last vestiges of the old stables. Now, where the horses once were combed and watered down, candle-lit tables made of oak treated to resemble slabs of blue-gray slate are lined up, set with 1920’s aluminum chairs covered in brown fabric. In the back, behind a display of breads and vegetables, is an open kitchen with a wood-burning oven. It all looks and feels very serene, even Zen-like, until the dining room fills up, which it does fast, and then it gets very noisy indeed.
We had ordered a chilled Sancerre and our waitress uncorked it and held up the bottle for us to see. “Now,” she said, like a nurse addressing a patient whose cooperation she suspected might not be fully guaranteed. “Who is going to taste the wine for me?”
Two of the restaurant’s owners-Vicki Freeman and Maureen Meehan-were also partners in the short-lived Vix Cafe in SoHo. (That space is now Veruka, a velvet-rope night spot where you pay $10 for a glass of wine and $2 to check your bag or coat. I didn’t go back after a dinner where they brought all the food-first and main courses-at the same time and were surprised when we objected.) At Vix, Ms. Freeman met her future husband, Marc Meyer, who is Five Points’ executive chef and an owner. He was previously at American Place and Brasserie Savoy in San Francisco. Aaron Bashy, formerly at Alva, is chef de cuisine.
When you sit down, you are brought a large basket of bread that includes a wonderful crisp flatbread topped with flecks of grated Parmesan cheese or poppy seeds. You can’t stop eating it, nor the bowl of crunchy pickled cucumber that accompanies it.
Messrs. Meyer and Bashy turn out food that is simple and fresh, using American ingredients with a Mediterranean sensibility, bringing out the flavor without being overwrought or fussy. It’s the sort of simple food you’d like to make at home on the weekend-if you had a wood-burning oven and someone to hit the produce market at dawn. With main courses averaging between $14 and $19, it’s reasonably priced, too, which explains why the restaurant also attracts a young audience. You can get a hamburger here for $11.50 or a plate of pasta for $14, which isn’t bad in these days of double-digit appetizers.
The vegetable fritto misto was perfect: string beans and Vidalia onions served with slices of lemon that take on a new consistency and become mellow and fragrant when they are deep-fried in a batter that was light and airy. Large whole shrimp were roasted in the shell, heads on, and they were sweet and juicy. They were served in a similar flat, square, cast-iron pan as the brandade, a rich garlicky mixture of mashed potatoes and salt cod, browned on top in the wood- burning oven.
Three fat fresh sardines arrived, roasted in the oven, unadorned. Fine for the beach, but in a restaurant I would like something with them. Grilled merguez (spicy lamb sausage), on the other hand, was served not on its own but with a salad of wheatberries laced with mint and diced tomatoes that complemented it nicely.
Choucroute is probably the last dish anyone in their right mind would want to eat at this time of year. But the version served at Five Points is not to be missed; it isn’t heavy at all and it is served as a first course. The cabbage was very light, not at all vinegary, nestled under a bronzed, perfectly cooked quail, with slices of baked apple, juniper and a thick slab of browned smokehouse bacon.
There is also a good selection of salads, both to begin and as a main course. Chunks of creamy, sharp feta top a colorful mix of greens and tomatoes, cucumber and black olives. I can usually take or leave lobster salad, but this one is special, served warm, with asparagus tips, pepper cress, baby beets and fava beans in a subtle lemon vinaigrette. The lobster was tender and not stringy. Another salad is a sort of chopped Niçoise with chunks of rare fresh tuna, onion, white runner beans, caper berries and spears of romaine tossed in a good olive oil dressing.
If you are choosing fish, the halibut with a parsley-walnut purée topping, well-seasoned slivered rosemary potatoes and roasted cipollini onions was a better choice than the wood-oven-roasted whole black sea bass that was overcooked when I ordered it, and bony to boot. The shrimp pastilla is a nod to Moroccan pigeon pie, served inside a flaky dome of phyllo dough with rice and pistachios and with a yogurt cucumber salad on the side.
Five Points’ chicken, marinated in citrus and chili, oven-roasted and paired with a salad of green beans, fingerling potatoes and cherry tomatoes, is just what you want to eat this time of year. So is the grilled hangar steak, with a warm mustardy garlic potato salad. My kind of food.
Desserts include a rustic folded-over crumbly pastry tart with plums inside, raspberry tart and an absolutely wonderful, moist poundcake with lemon curd and berries.
The wine list is thoughtful, with quite a few interesting moderately priced choices, and there is also a good selection of beer.
The only drawback to this place is the noise. The combination of the wood floor and ceiling and the music makes the noise rebound and conversation difficult. But if the noise level in many new restaurants is an indicator, a lot of people must agree with Alfred Hitchcock: “Conversation is the enemy of good wine and food.”
31 Great Jones Street
Noise Level: Very High
Wine List: Interesting and Reasonable
Credit Cards: All Major
Price Range: Main Courses $11.50 to $23
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to 2 A.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor