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New on Manhattan's Menu

In the Meatpacking District of the Lower West Side, French restaurants and slick diners have turned an industrial eyesore into a haven of hipness

October 15, 2000|TONY GRANT LECHTMAN

NEW YORK — "You're taking us where?" my parents asked apprehensively as I led them across a treeless expanse of rough cobblestones and past thickets of low-slung red-brick buildings in a state of disrepair. They were on a rare visit from their home in Palm Springs, and I had just announced that I was taking them to dinner at a diner in the Lower West Side's Meatpacking District.

Until fairly recently, the mere mention of this tiny section of Manhattan triggered trepidation. South of Chelsea and bound by West 14th Street, Gansevoort Street and 9th and 10th avenues, it was a place for wholesale meatpackers by day and a dicey no-go zone of streetwalkers, drug dealers and sex clubs by night.

These days, bona-fide butchers are few, edged out by a tide of upscale development that has swept in a bumper crop of hot restaurants. The area still draws heavily on postindustrial aesthetics, and the fact that it looks a bit dangerous only heightens the allure.

The district comes into its own at night, when fog rolls in from the Hudson River and unmarked doorways beckon, promising plush interiors and enthralling flavors. On weekends, hungry souls descend in droves, and the energy is explosive. Just check out the line--even on a Monday night--to get into Pastis, restaurateur Keith McNally's latest bistro baby, and you'll know you've found a hip place to take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Among the possibilities:

Fressen: Yiddish for "eat heartily," Fressen is one of the most seductive millennial dining rooms downtown. When I walked in on a Saturday night, I was met by a friendly host and the breezy music of Astrud Gilberto (of "Girl From Ipanema" fame) sweeping across an atmospheric space done up in oxblood lacquer walls and dark acrylic and wood screens. The subdued lighting, dimmed as the night wore on, beautifully accentuated the sumptuous room.

A rarity in New York, the entire restaurant is smoke-free, except for the separate bar. That meshes well with some health-conscious overtures from Fressen's kitchen, where most of the produce comes from organic farms.

The commitment to freshness means the menu changes daily. I was lucky enough to try a side of Idaho potato chips with malt vinegar and sea salt ($5); they came thick-cut and crispy, yet moist.

I couldn't resist dipping the table bread into a dish of olive oil. It was cool and light, with a hint of wheat grass, a nice way to transition to my appetizer of cauliflower tempura with a tangy ponzu dipping sauce ($9). My dining companion, Ginger, settled on the peeky toe crab appetizer ($10), chunks of crab hidden in a light, creamy custard, with sylvetta greens (a kind of wild arugula) and an updated take on piperade on the side. Fressen's version of this Basque dish came as slivers of sauteed red and yellow peppers with onions and garlic on a crisp wedge of toast.

Ginger's grilled orata ($24), a Mediterranean white fish, had a nice covering of sea salt and olive oil and came with grilled eggplant, corn on the cob and a wild herb salad. But it wasn't quite as toothsome as my crispy Amish chicken with sweet potato-hazelnut gratin and chili-spiked apple cider glaze ($19), a perfect fall choice. A large portion of tender white meat came wrapped around the succulent gratin, which was unlike anything I had ever tasted.

Ginger remarked on the extensive offerings of Rieslings and sakes. We settled on a bottle of Albarino Rias Baixas ($29), a pleasantly crisp white from the Spanish Basque country.

Desserts beckoned--carrot mango cake with mango-cream cheese icing, and spiced pecan tart with poached Seckel pear and orange-honey ice cream. But I was just too full. I settled on a selection of homemade ice cream ($7); a scoop of white chocolate mint far outshone two others, chocolate ice cream and peach sorbet. An impressive selection of specialty teas and herbal "elixirs" is offered too.

By the time we left, around 9:30, the place was packed with an eclectic and visibly well-heeled, if not altogether relaxed, group of diners, dressed mostly in black.

Pastis: When Pastis opened last spring, it was a signal that the Meatpacking District had arrived. Keith McNally's SoHo restaurant, Balthazar, has become a New York institution, one as well known for its byzantine reservation policy as for its power to pack in the celebrities.

McNally conceived Pastis as a laid-back alternative, a sort of workingman's French bistro to Balthazar's more serious restaurant stylings. Not that style suffers at Pastis; indeed, the attention to Franco-detail is meticulous, from the old-fashioned lettering on the yellow signs outside to the French ad for the eponymous libation splashed over a big mirrored wall.

While the food is on the same plane as at Balthazar--traditional French--it is less expensive. Twice I've ordered the steak frites ($18) and have been well sated. The salty Belgian-style pommes frites, twice fried in peanut oil and served with mayonnaise, had me reminiscing about Brussels cafes.

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