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
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,
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
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.
my god, but your book was the best thing I've seen in
That, from the owner.
guys do the most daring work I've ever seen."
That, from the new employee.
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.