If the Kitchen Falls Short, The Cocktails Compensate

Kitchens & Cocktails

199 Orchard Street

212-420-1112

One Star

Dress: Casual

Lighting: A red bordello glow

Noise Level: High

Wine List: Around 50 bottles, international, interesting and reasonably priced

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Main courses, brunch, $8.50 to $14.95; dinner, $8.50 to $16.75

Dinner: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.

The bartender worked at top speed, tossing raspberries, lime juice and a squirt of soda water into a row of tumblers half-filled with a red liquid and ice. “Our house cocktail,” he explained, perching a small plastic green steer on each rim. “Lime rickey, made with raspberry vodka.”

At Kitchen & Cocktails, which opened early in the summer on the Lower East Side, caipirinhas are made with fresh pineapple, and an “icebreaker”—a mix of grape vodka and Vin de Glacière—is garnished with frozen grapes. Displaying shades of Trader Vic’s, there’s even a “volcanic scorpion bowl’’ for two, “a mysterious blend of fruit juices and exotic liquors” brought flaming to your table. As its name implies, this restaurant takes its drinks seriously—while keeping things tongue-in-cheek.

The room is as red as the lime rickey I was drinking, bathed in a scarlet neon glow. It’s spartan and deliberately shabby, with a décor that veers between rumpus room and Third World brothel. Bare wooden tables are set with candles, and red walls are hung with large collages childishly sketched with robot-like heads on layers of white paper. Small chandeliers, fashioned from odd pieces Venetian and Czech glass, are suspended at intervals from the ceiling, and golden velveteen curtains hang over dark, wooden booths, ready to be drawn if and when appropriate.

Kitchen & Cocktails is a New York branch of the Luna Park chain, owned by A.J. Gilbert, with restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles (where the chef, Tony Bonacki, previously worked). It feels very much a part of its Orchard Street location, though, and the food is as playful as the setting. Portions are generous. The menu, which borrows from its sibling restaurants, covers the bases from burgers and steaks to pastas, vegetarian dishes, chicken and fish.

You can begin by sharing a goat-cheese fondue, brought to the table over the flame of a votive candle. The fondue is mild, with the consistency of whipped cream, and it’s served with chunks of grilled bread and sliced apples for dipping. It goes perfectly with the cocktails. So do the mussels, which come with a small container of crisp French fries, and the grilled artichokes with garlicky aioli.

Salads are ample, if at times overdressed. Spinach salad (laced with feta, candied walnuts and currants) and arugula (with fennel and Parmesan) both come with a fine lemon-shallot vinaigrette. I might not have chosen one of these to begin with had our waitress told me that the main course of fried trout I’d ordered came with half a plate of salad as well. The trout was good, but I couldn’t eat any more salad.

The roast halibut, on the other hand, was a little tired, but the person eating it woke up when he bit into a whole chili pepper that was hidden in the broccoli rabe and potatoes underneath the fish. Grilled lamb kebabs, piled on a mound of couscous and liberally sprinkled with fresh mint, were tough. But grilled salmon, served on a bed of fresh corn with basil and cherry tomatoes, was excellent.

I went back to Kitchen & Cocktails on a Monday night. Only halfway through dinner did it occur to me that since the restaurant is open seven days a week, the chef must have been off. Even so, his absence shouldn’t have affected the food quite so dramatically.

Apart from the mussels and fries, which were fine, we had the sort of meal, as my companion put it, that tasted as though Mom and Dad had gone out for the evening, leaving instructions: “Put pork in microwave for three minutes …. ”

He had ordered pork, a cutlet stuffed with gruyère and served with apple-cranberry sauce. “It’s like a high-grade school lunch,” he said after a mouthful. “The meat is covered with a glue-like jam.”

And the mashed potatoes?

“Nice if you like them not too hot.”

I had ordered a Hawaiian tuna “poke,” a tartare mixed with chopped tomato, cucumber, ginger, onion and black sesame seeds. Was it too much time spent in the refrigerator that had stripped this dish of any taste? It came on a bed of fried wontons that did nothing to help. My main course was a bouillabaisse, which consisted largely of potatoes. There were some mussels and pieces of halibut, too, and (surprise!) string beans—the same lemony ones that were served with my friend’s pork—tossed in for good measure.

For dessert, my companion had ordered coconut crème pie. He took a mouthful and put his fork down. “I feel that a group of 11-year-olds got out the Betty Crocker and made Mom a special dessert for when she got home.”

Meanwhile, I was trying to get my spoon into a Bananas Foster covered in a hardened rum, brown sugar and butter glaze that stuck to it like glue.

“This needs an ice ax and a rope,” said my friend after attempting to break through. “I’m only kidding,” he added. “An ice pick would be just fine.”

But another night, I had a wonderful crème brûlée (which was the size of a dinner plate) served with hazelnut shortbread. A dense bourbon-pecan chocolate cake with mint-chip ice cream was pretty good, too. But the s’mores were not as good as the do-it-yourself version at scout camp. And the bite-sized rounds of apple you roll in toasted almonds and dip in hot caramel, served on a stick and over a candle like the s’mores, weren’t any better.

While Monday night’s food fell so short, the drinks and some of the other dishes I tasted—as well as the low prices and friendly atmosphere—jack Kitchen & Cocktails up to one star. I’d come back just for one of those delicious raspberry-lime rickeys. If the Kitchen Falls Short, The Cocktails Compensate