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Hot Tables for Fall

As the leaves swirl, the city that never sleeps charges into its seasonal feeding frenzy

November 01, 1998|GREG MORAGO | HARTFORD COURANT

NEW YORK — There is nothing more unabashedly blissful and downright sexy than Manhattan in the fall. Romance ricochets off the glass towers of midtown, darts about the leafy environs of Central Park, swirls in the hollows of the narrow cobbled streets of tony SoHo and prances through the shopper-friendly sidewalks of the Flatiron District.

From Chinatown to the Upper East Side, from Columbus Circle to Alphabet City, Gotham radiates an electric charm from now through New Year's Day.

And nowhere is that energy more visible than in the city's restaurants, which are without a doubt the most vivid collective personification of Manhattan's identity. In New York, you are where you eat. Fall invigorates these culinary stages, so mammothly diverse as to make New York the world's best eating city. Chefs are eager and daring and restaurateurs are polishing the signs on their new digs. Add to this the city's fall arts fusillade, which carries with it the need to see and be seen at the hottest tables.

Call ahead, flirt or just barge your way into these typically New York restaurants. Some are known for food, some for sumptuous service and decor, some for flat-out razzle-dazzle. Whatever your desire, you can find it in New York. Your table's waiting.

Mercer Kitchen

Want to be the first on your block to say you've dined with the happening swells? Then get to Mercer Kitchen, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's refined rathskeller below the lobby of the hip new Mercer hotel in SoHo. Fans of Vongerichten (and he has many) will naturally flock to wherever he's manning the stove. But Mercer Kitchen is all the things the chef's uptown restaurants aren't: easy on the pocketbook and democratically downtown.

The striking minimalist decor plays off the indulgences on the menu, full of contemporary bistro yummies such as pissaladiere (a kind of southern French pizza), cod in fig leaves, goat cheese salad and pasta with rabbit ragout. The sexy servers aren't your typical SoHo snobs: They're actually really nice and concerned. For food lovers and design fanatics, Mercer is it.

Mercer Kitchen, The Mercer, 99 Prince St.; telephone (212) 966-5454. Entrees run $18-$30.

Babbo

It was inevitable that chef Mario Batali (he of the Food Network's "Molto Mario" fame) would outgrow his baby-size Po (in Greenwich Village). So he teamed with Joseph Bastianich (he of Becco and Frico Bar fame, who just happens to be son of cucina queen Lidia) to open the chic new Babbo in Greenwich Village. Described as "aggressive Italian," Babbo combines its owners' love for Italian--Bastianich's leanings to silken pastas, hearty grills and creamy risottos--and Batali's respect for organ meats, fresh vegetables and breads. The result? A signature dish of ravioli with beef cheeks. It's definitely a draw.

Babbo, 110 Waverly Place between 6th Avenue and MacDougal Street; tel. (212) 777-0303. Entrees: $16-$25.

Odeon

While the Average Joe's trying to get into the buzzing brasserie called Balthazar, the in-the-know crowd's blissfully happy at the smart, buzzing brasserie called Odeon. A true survivor of the ugly '80s (it appeared on the cover of Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City"), Odeon is a TriBeCa mainstay that has masterfully weathered the frantic food whims of this big city. How? By offering a consistently reliable menu of steak-frites, omelets, baked pastas, grilled fish, roasted chicken, cheery salads and soul-warming specials.

It's the one place downtown where you can sip a martini or guzzle Bolly without looking like a poseur. The deco detailing and friendly bar make visitors feel instantly welcome and at home. Good food, good attitude, good scene.

Odeon, 145 W. Broadway; tel. (212) 233-0507. Entrees $9-$25.

Le Cirque 2000

OK, the food's not always spectacular (despite its remarkable reputation), and the service can be a bit stiff for the Brooklyn-Bronx-Queens crowd, but Le Cirque 2000 stands as the important must-do, damn-the-wallet restaurant of pre-millennial Gotham. Owner Sirio Maccioni's French-Italian menu is showered with truffles, stuffed with foie gras and pumped full of cream and chocolate (the latter courtesy of handsome pastry chef Jacques Torres). The menu's excesses strive to match the outrageous decor--a neon-lighted New-Age roller coaster slamming straight into Louis XIV. It's maddeningly senseless but riotously right-on. Until Daniel Boulud opens his new restaurant in Maccioni's old Le Cirque, this, for better or worse, is ground zero.

Le Cirque 2000, adjacent to the New York Palace Hotel, 455 Madison Ave.; tel. (212) 303-7788. Entrees $25-$35.

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