Not every restaurant will lead a diner, disappointed by her entrée, to blame herself for a poor choice. That kind of culinary hypnotism can only be pulled off by an establishment whose store of goodwill has been built up by cheerful, service-oriented service, a handful of never-fail dishes, and a convivial crowd beckoning you to share in their good time. Such a restaurant is The Red Cat, the first of Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams’ successful ventures, a West Chelsea fixture since the day it opened in 1999.
At 6:00, the bar was filled with people sipping wine and dipping radishes in salt. The wainscoted, red-banquetted dining room was already half-occupied, and by 6:45 every table was taken. Hanging from the ceiling, Moroccan candle lanterns cast spidery, mysterious shadows. The room hummed.
Expectations were high, and the appetizers did not disappoint.A salad of bitter greens, described as having “gruyere fondue, smoked bacon, potatoes, and shiitake,” led my friend to bounce in her seat. She expected a small bowl of melted cheese and perhaps a crouton to dunk into it, so when the plate arrived looking like, well, a salad, her bouncing stilled. But soon she discovered the gooey, satisfying secret of the dish: the fondue lined the plate, lurking beneath the greens for her to scoop with a potato chunk or toss into the salad itself. She opted for the latter, lending a creamy, luscious tang to the bite of the greens. I chose the quick sauté of zucchini with toasted almonds and pecorino, a Red Cat perennial. A small haystack of barely-cooked, shredded zucchini tossed with mahogany-colored sliced nuts, veiled beneath twin sheets of salty, crumbly cheese, it disappeared as fast as my fork could shepherd it into my mouth.
Expectations soared even higher.
My friend had selected the poussin, that night’s special, served with braised escarole and a sauce made from chilies and breadcrumbs. The baby chicken was perfectly cooked, tender and juicy, and the heat of the chilies was more of a suggestion than an assertion. What appeared to be a whole, small, head of escarole was lackluster, though, and difficult to cut. My grilled Atlantic salmon, served on a bed of shaved Brussels sprouts and carrot puree with smoked bacon vinaigrette dotting the plate’s rim, was a more overt disappointment. The fish had very little flavor, and the bacon vinaigrette seemed to intrude upon the rest of the dish, rather than complement it. I focused on our side order of addictively crisp tempura green beans, admiring the way their vibrant color shone through the light coating.
At the table next to us, an older couple tucked into their simple roast chicken with mushrooms. “He has this every time we come here,” the wife explained when she caught us looking. We watched, wistful, as he put a morsel in his mouth and smiled. Why hadn’t we ordered that?
Desserts redeemed the situation—utterly greaseless risotto fritters with gingered blueberries and a smooth, not-too-sweet honey semifreddo for my friend, and the Red Cat rocky road sundae with homemade, barely bitter caramel ice cream, candied walnuts, chewy brownie bits, and gooey hot fudge for me. When I asked the waiter to hold the marshmallows, go easy on the whipped cream, and make it a child’s size portion, please, he was somewhat puzzled but perfectly accommodating.
By the time we left, the table next to us had been turned twice already, but not once did we get the sense that management wanted us to clear out. We bundled into our coats, stuffed but smiling, only half-kicking ourselves for not ordering that simple roast chicken.
The Red Cat
227 10th Avenue
Between 23rd & 24th Sts