“Bruce will be right with you,” said a waitress, plates in both hands, pausing for a second to greet us at the door and then scurrying off to a table.
As my companion and I waited by the bar, we watched the bartender ladle the contents of a large punch bowl into thick glass tumblers. It was an innocent-looking concoction–pale pink and laced with fruit–that would, no doubt, bring you down like a second martini. Next to the punch bowl was an open reservations book filled with names. When I’d called Aka Cafe, which opened at the end of last summer, a phone message said the restaurant didn’t take reservations. “This week we decided to hold back half the tables and let people reserve the rest,” said Bruce, a slender, amiable fellow with dark, spiky hair and jeans. “The wait should only be about 20 minutes,” he said apologetically.
“I’ll skip the house punch,” said my companion as we took our seats at the bar. Instead, he ordered a Negroni. “Campari and gin,” he explained. “Did you know, by the way,” he added, “that the original house drink at Harry’s Bar was not the Bellini but the Ohio, made with champagne and cherry brandy? It’s described in Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana [an account of a voyage through the Middle East in the 30’s that became a travel-book classic].” Later, I looked it up. To have the right effect, Harry tells the author confidentially, the punch must be made with the worst available cherry brandy. “It was,” wrote Byron.
Aka Cafe is run by the same team that, a little over a year ago, opened the highly successful 71 Clinton Fresh Food a few doors down. The place feels like a young, hip answer to Harry’s Bar. But instead of Venice, Aka is tucked away in the semi-gentrified tenement neighborhood of the Lower East Side, whose population has shifted from Jewish to Hispanic. Across the street from the restaurant is the San Jose grocery. Down the block, nail parlors and hairdressers (one for straightening, another for dreadlocks) are interspersed with boutiques and retro furniture stores.
In the 50’s, Aka Cafe was a women’s clothing shop called Kupersmiths. The name remains in black letters on the brown terrazzo floor at the threshold, but the plate-glass display windows on either side where mannequins once stood are now set with tables and chairs. The restaurant has only 35 seats, but one wall is hung with tinted mirrors which reflect the votive candles dotted about the room and make the place seem larger. In the back is an open kitchen with an electric stove that’s manned by just two cooks.
Bruce reappeared. “The folks over there are just finishing up their cappuccino,” he said. When the folks had paid up, he took us to one of the tables on the raised platform by the front windows. “You may put your purse here,” he said, drawing up a white footstool. It was just like Alain Ducasse, which also provides stools for the ladies’ handbags. At Aka Cafe the price of dinner is 10 percent of what it is at Alain Ducasse and, in keeping with that ratio, the tables are also about one-tenth the size. In fact, we had to use the footstool to hold bottles of
Aka Cafe’s chef, Scott Ehrlich, came here from 71 Clinton Fresh Food and previously cooked at Indigo, Chicama and Lupa. His food is clever and interesting, reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood. Your sandwich is served on a Kossar bialy with Gus’ pickles (including terrific green tomatoes), your oyster soup comes with Streit’s matzos and, as a nod to the Hispanic population, there’s a selection of empanadas on the menu, made with feathery, glazed pastry that’s stuffed with fillings, such as pork with ginger and raisins, or turkey with smoked paprika and tomato marmalade. The dishes are small, so you can sample different things, and with most costing six or seven bucks apiece, you can do so with impunity. The wine list has over a dozen selections chosen by Glen Goodwin, one of the managers of 71 Clinton Fresh Food. They are remarkably good for their price–most of them are in the $30 range–and there are eight offered by the glass.
Mr. Ehrlich’s sandwich plates are bright and colorful. A vegetable sandwich is garnished with a robust scarlet beet horseradish dip. A hanger-steak “slider” is made from juicy meat that’s chopped like souvlaki and served on a pressed bialy. Pickles, red onion and sweet-potato chips come on the side. One of the sandwiches is such an outlandish combination of ingredients that my companion couldn’t identify what he was eating when I gave him a taste. It was lamb’s tongue with almond butter and red currant jelly (just like mom used to pack for school). He loved it.
At dinner, in addition to hot and cold sandwiches and empanadas, there are two soups and two main courses. The squash soup is a vivid orange, thick and smooth with a rich, earthy flavor and comes garnished with spicy pumpkin seeds, sage and popcorn. The oyster soup, made with an aromatic white-wine broth, smoked bacon and quinoa, is also good, but a trifle salty. There are two main courses: Tender pork cheeks are served on a creamy celery purée with sliced carrots, and crispy skate-fish cakes arrive on an avocado aioli with a small cucumber-mint salad on the side, which adds a nice crunch. Each of the entrees are priced at $12, and you’d be happy to pay twice as much.
As we ate, my companion and I discussed the impact of price on one’s expectations for a restaurant. At Alain Ducasse, you come expecting the meal of a lifetime–and at the price, it should be–but you can spend half the evening sniffily pondering whether the food is really worth it. When a dish costs just seven bucks, however, and it’s as imaginative and interesting as it can be at Aka Cafe, it can suddenly be elevated to the category of “great.”
The two desserts offered are Latin inspired. A tiny warm chocolate empanada, oozing with melted dark chocolate, comes with vanilla ice cream on the side. Dulce de leche pudding is a luscious caramel concoction served in a sundae glass with homemade wafer-thin cookies.
“Do you really think you should tell people about this place?” asked my companion as he finished the last traces of his chocolate empanada. Then, on a more hopeful note, he added, “Perhaps they’ll read the piece the way I read travel books about places I never intend to visit … like an arm-chair traveler reading Robert Byron on Baghdad.”
Those intrepid travelers who do not find the Lower East Side too daunting a destination will be interested to learn that a sister restaurant, Alias, is due to open next month at 76 Clinton Street.
49 Clinton Street
dress: Tattoos, pink fun furs, tweed skirts, black stockings
noise level: High, but bearable
wine list: Short, well-conceived and inexpensive, with many choices by the glass
credit cards: All major
price range: Main courses, lunch, $8 to $10; dinner, $6 to $12
lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 4:30 p.m.
dinner: Monday to Saturday, 6 p.m. to midnight
[ [ very good
[ [ [ excellent
[ [ [ [ outstanding
no star poor