Okey Dokey Lohki
Having suffered through the conversion of one of my old neighborhoods from Little Italy into Nolita, I'm taking action this time. Before those bastards at the New York Times can drop another dopey tag on a perfectly good area that is decidedly not in need of a nickname (Loho?!)--in this case, the perfectly good area where I've found Manhattan's last civilized one-bedroom at a reasonable, stabilized rent--I am hereby designating the stretch from 34th to 42nd Sts. along 9th Ave. Lohki. Lower Hell's Kitchen. Take that, Times real estate junior editor.
Though still heavy on the second-gen immigrants, this neighborhood is far from an undiscovered gem. Hell's Kitchen north of 42nd exploded several years ago, pricing out those who should rightly be living in a place named for murderous Irishmen. Sensing money, developers headed south, and so came the high-rises to Lohki. Or one, at least: 10-odd storeys of red- brick Mondrian death rattle at the corner of 37th St., complete with a Sleepy's mattress shop on the ground floor.
With those high-rises come the people who live in high-rises--and their small dogs and expensive shoes and blunt-cut girlfriends and fit boyfriends. Which is odd. This stretch boasts more parking lots than trees, and the Lincoln Tunnel traffic puts the Holland's feed to shame. Fire trucks slam down 9th Ave. at all hours, sirens blaring, making street-side apartments like mine suitable only for deafened city veterans. It's hardly a pretty area--at least for high-rise types.
As a child who spent his afternoons spelunking suburban industrial wastelands, and as a veteran of Wild, Wild, West Philadelphia, I'm fond of it. The NYPD's Midtown precinct is on 35th, and the cross-street bookends boast three movie theaters. Off the top of my head, I can name three butchers, two farmer's markets and two small international food stores--leaving no excuse to patronize the Food Emporium on 43rd St.
So to announce the arrival of Lohki's first trendy restaurant is Pyrrhic. Yet there it is, HK, six months old at the corner of 39th St. In nice weather, the south-facing garage doors offer the area's only open-air dining, and the modernist white interior suggests a Chelsea coffeeshop dropped off at the wrong bus stop. (Or maybe not: Rather than a southbound exodus for high-risers, some have suggested this area as the latest destination for Chelsea exiles.) Several flat screens above the steel-and-chrome bar offer a mix of entertainment, news and sports, and there's enough air between tables that even at its 100-odd capacity, the space is comfortable.
HK is a restaurant whose timing and placement are more important to its success than the quality of its menu, which is sufficient if not compelling. Sometimes you're willing to trade the better meal for the convenient meal, which is precisely why I've had dinner or dessert here several times.
Routine may be the death of youth, but it's also recourse for those who can afford to experiment only so often. Hence, I've come to favor the merguez ¨ la harissa appetizer ($7.50), a modest portion of French sausage served on a bed of greens. A better merguez is available a few doors down at Tagine, but I recall the Moroccan neighbor being more expensive. The crispy duck confit served over a warm lentil frissee salad ($9) and chopped Mediterranean salad ($8.75) are also quite good, with more praise reserved for the latter.
Sorry to say for the incoming crowd, but beef is the dependable $15-or-so entree indulgence. The grilled rib-eye served either as part of steak frites or with a balsamic shallot sauce (billed as entrecote grilled ¨ l'echalotte) have been my meal more than once. The grilled chicken paillard with artichokes, tomato and olive tagine ($12.75) once arrived with disappointing grilled vegetables, and the grilled salmon filet with couscous and ratatouille in a citrus curry butter ($14.50) fails to compete with salmon from your average restaurant of good repute. At less than $9, the sirloin hamburger (turkey available) is a solid, affordable choice.
I find myself at HK on those nights when I don't want to cook, yet want to be close to home after a few glasses of wine. I'll often bring the newspaper or laptop and ask for a table along the wall, preferably the corner spot where I can drink and eat slowly, unobtrusively, with a bit of Astrid-style Latin jazz in the air. Unfortunately, because HK is the only trendy joint in the area, there are often trendy types on hand. I admit to blending without much effort, but what differentiates me from them is the following:
"We come here all the time. Where's the owner? We know the owner. A 15-minute wait? No way. No. Fucking. Way."
Mock me for being comfortable at a place like HK, but I'm never this crass and haughty. The speaker was an early-30s woman, harsh face, mid-tier clothing (but expensive shoes--always expensive shoes) and a sense of entitlement the size of Jersey. She was showing off for her boss, who had brought his three employees to show off for the agency's latest acquisition, a photographer fresh off the boat from wherever-the-fuck. They ended up next to me, and not for the first time, I regretted not having a pair of headphones.
"Oh my god, but your book was the best thing I've seen in years."
That, from the owner.
"You guys do the most daring work I've ever seen."
That, from the new employee.
"Let's get that Verizon account tomorrow, okay? Okay? Okay!"
Must we condemn the dirt for the weeds it supports? Like it or not, these are the people that HK needs to survive.
For my part, I stop in twice a month for the chocolate souffl´ with vanilla ice cream ($5.95). I usually pair it with the cheapest port on the menu (Taylor Fladgate, $7) or a $7 glass of pinot grigio, or an espresso or Greek coffee ($2.75). Get there at the right time, with the doors open and the right music floating over the clean modernist interior, and it's a fine way to spend $15. It's even a decent $60 dinner for two. Especially for the neighborhood, and only if you're willing to forgive the presence of certain fellow patrons.