New York changes seasons like flipping a switch; one day you're sweltering on the subway platform and the next you find yourself thinking, Hmmm, you know, I think I might need a sweater... Just as suddenly, my food cravings change. The first nip of fall, which arrived (as best I can tell) on Saturday, left my little household craving red meat and red wine.
Our unofficial tradition has become to celebrate Kevin's birthday with steak frites. We've steak frited all over downtown Manhattan and our neck of Brooklyn, and upon the recommendation of a Francophile friend of mine, decided to take this year's steak fest to Zucco, on the Lower East Side.
Anyone who knows me knows I like quirky, I like small, and I like back story; Zucco provided all those, in abundance. The space is tiny - as in, two proper tables, a few stools, and a bar; one of the articles I read quoted the owner (the single-monikered Zucco) as saying he can seat 20 thin people, or 14 fat ones. Frankly, I can't imagine 20 people in the little space, but the size wasn't a problem as the bar was entirely open when we arrived. The dim space is full of French kitsch that leans heavily towards both religious icons and boxing memorabilia, and manages to feel art-directed and shabbily haphazard at the same time. Bowie was playing on the stereo, and behind the bar were three people: the tattooed host, the busboy, and the cook.
The menu is straightforward French bistro fare, and the prices are moderate (I didn't see anything over $20 and most dishes were under $15) and the selection is plentiful. I ordered the lentil salad, tangy with red wine vinegar, and Kevin started with a spinach and goat cheese salad that was made even better by the bird's eye view we had of the preparation: the cook sliced disks of goat cheese on top of baby spinach, then wrapped the whole thing into a sort of phyllo dough envelope, which was sauteed in butter and then plated over mixed greens. Divine. I had the hangar steak served with a red wine shallot sauce and a bubbling potato gratin, and Kevin had the shell steak with herbed butter and crisp, brown frites. Everything was great, but what I loved most was watching the cook; the French Onion Soup was one of the most enticing dishes I've ever seen prepared -- seeing the onions sauteed in stock and then poured into a crock with a piece of toast, heaped with cheese and sent under the salamander made me regret my lentils, just a little. With our meal we had a $24 bottle of Cotes Du Rhone which was nothing to write home about, and in hindsight perhaps not meaty enough for our entrees, but was nice and dry and also, $24. Our entire bill, before tip, came to $88.
The food at Zucco can hold its own with most of the other bistros in New York I've tried, but the atmosphere sets it apart. I've had my share of zinc bars and red banquettes; this funny little spot endeared itself to me with the ephemera and the attitude and most of all, the open kitchen. Zucco (212 677 5200) is located at 188 Orchard Street and accepts American Express.