The Not-So-Plain Jane Turns Up the Volume in Noho

P.G. Wodehouse once described a woman as having a laugh that could open an oyster at 60 paces. If Jane, a new restaurant on Houston Street just north of Soho, served oysters, they would jump clear out of their shells. When you walk in, the noise hits you like a tidal wave. Just two months old, the place is clearly a success, attracting a lively audience that comes for the good food and low prices; they’re having a great time and aren’t afraid to show it.

It was still sunny when I arrived for dinner, and a few tables had been set out on the sidewalk. (Even with all the traffic barreling toward the Holland Tunnel, West Houston Street was an oasis of peace compared with the dining room.) Around me, young women with tanned shoulders and bare midriffs were drinking glowing pink cocktails. They made me think of the opening lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet, as “modernized” by the poet Howard Moss:

“Who says you’re like one of the dog days? You’re nicer. And better.”

The hostess who greeted me at the door was also nice. She was dismayed to discover that she had my reservation down for two, although I had booked for four. But there was an empty table by the window, so I asked if we could sit there. At that moment, the manager appeared. “Would you mind waiting until your party is complete?” he asked, smiling pleasantly.

“Yes, I would,” I replied, also smiling pleasantly.

He looked as though he couldn’t believe his ears. “You would?”

The manager and co-owner, Jeffrey Lefcourt, is an old hand at popular restaurants, having previously worked for Steve Hanson at the Blue Water Grill, Ocean Grill and Atlantic Grill. He stood his ground.

Ten minutes later, my friends trickled in and we were allowed to sit at the table, which had remained empty while I stood by the front desk. Mr. Lefcourt came over and greeted one of my guests warmly.

“His father, Gerald Lefcourt, is my lawyer,” my friend explained after he’d left. “He defended Abbie Hoffman and the Black Panthers.”

“I bet Abbie Hoffman wouldn’t have stood by meekly until his party was complete,” my husband said. “He would have stormed the table.”

Looking around the packed restaurant, it’s hard to believe that Jane is in a space that has been jinxed for years. Most recently it was the short-lived Demarchelier Downtown, and before that Nell Campbell’s E&O and Harmony. Demarchelier’s bistro mirrors, brass railings and red banquettes have been cleared from the big, square dining room, which now feels airy and comfortable, with polished tables, beige walls hung with photo murals of wheat and grass, and a small bar decorated with a vase of sunflowers.

The chef, Glenn Harris, also a partner, is a protégé of California chef Jonathan Waxman and Marc Meyer of Five Points in Noho. His food–contemporary American with a California bent–is a good deal, with most main courses under $21.

The pink cocktails that are so popular are watermelon martinis, a specialty of the house served in a cocktail shaker. They are a refreshing and not-too-strong blend of vodka and fresh watermelon juice flavored with fresh mint. To go with such a drink, what could be better than a side order of crisp Gruyère dumplings, oozing cheese? (These also come with the hanger steak, a juicy strip of meat that gets onion marmalade on the side.) Light, crunchy crab and crawfish fritters, served with a spicy tartar sauce, also go down easily with a martini, as do the fried East Coast clams. The latter are long and pale gold, paired with a sweet corn dip and a bracing dip made with Thai and habañero peppers infused in rice-wine vinegar. Try these and you’ll want another round. The spareribs are another good bar snack, falling off the bone under a brown-sugar glaze.

The wine list is short, around 40 bottles, which are divided by flavor rather than region or varietal. We ordered a bottle of Cambria Viognier listed under “Rich,” which my husband pronounced floral as a corsage. “Send it back,” said our friend, who was in the wine business. My husband protested. “I can’t send back a bottle just because I don’t like it.”

“I do all the time,” our friend remarked. “I’d send a bottle back for having no fruit!”

But I thought it went fine with the chilled foie gras, a buttery slab served with Muscat syrup, ginger-peach salad and slices of toasted brioche. It was also perfectly pleasant with the hand-diced salmon and tuna tartare, which looks as inviting as it tastes, topped with crème fraîche and glistening red beads of salmon roe, garnished with pickled cucumber. Mr. Meyer makes his own flatbread, which he serves in the bread basket. It’s better (and crisper) when used as the base for a California designer pizza, topped with roasted tomato and shrimp or goat cheese and caramelized onion.

The red wine we ordered, a “Bright” Erath pinot noir, went very well with Mr. Harris’ light, summery food. Grilled calamari, soft and pleasantly charred, is tossed in a red-pepper vinaigrette with cucumbers and red radishes. Parmesan-crusted veal is served in the Milanese style, with tomato and arugula, for a perfect, unfussy dish. Halibut comes with a light cherry-tomato vinaigrette and ravioli stuffed with artichokes; seared scallops arrive on a bright green purée of peas, with sautéed leeks and a carrot vinaigrette. A risotto, made with fava beans and roasted eggplant, conceals a bed of creamed spinach. It’s O.K., but lacks the conviction of the other dishes.

Desserts are first-rate, managing to be homey and elegant at the same time. A feathery pastry purse is filled with warm apple purée and accompanied with caramel sauce and vanilla-bean ice cream. The vanilla cheesecake with lemon-thyme sauce is stellar. The ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake is dark, rich and satisfying. Strawberries, tossed with mint and champagne cream sabayon in a thin cookie tuile, are pure pleasure. And when you dig your fork into the banana bread-pudding sundae, which is loaded with espresso ice cream and chocolate sauce, you’ll be happy to buy a pair of earplugs and come back for more.

It’s too bad Jane is so noisy. But if conversation is not an important part of your meal (and it clearly isn’t for these customers), you will enjoy it enormously. Despite the restaurant’s name, there is nothing plain about the food. The next time I go, I’ll try to get one of those tables outside, pour myself a watermelon martini and watch the sunset over a plate of Mr. Harris’ great fried clams.

Jane

* *

100 West Houston Street (between La Guardia Place and Thompson Street)

254-7000

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Excruciating

Wine list: Short, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch $9 to $13, dinner $17 to $21

Lunch: Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. To 4 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. To 4 p.m.

Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5:30 p.m. To 1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m. To 2 a.m.; Sunday, 5:30 p.m. To midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor The Not-So-Plain Jane Turns Up the Volume in Noho