“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire, I shouldn’t look any further than my own backyard. Because it if it isn’t there, I never lost it to begin with.” – Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz
When I read Frank Bruni’s review of The Red Cat (a two star review, interesting to note because the other two Bruni-inspired restaurants I recently visited–Cafe Gray and Cendrillon–were both, also, two stars) I was surprised and excited to read that this “expert utility player” of a restaurant was in my neighborhood. 10th Ave. and 23rd street: that puts it four avenues away, but it’s a happy walk down 23rd street past old tall brick buildings with lots of character. Lisa’s grandmother used to live in one of these buildings. Lisa was my companion, as per usual, for this escapade. I met her on 23rd after work and we made our way down. It was a bit windy out. When we got to 10th Ave. I spotted The Red Cat flag, making like a Bob Dylan song:
Once inside, we were greeted by a warm professional-looking host who asked if we had a reservation. When we told him “no” he said, “Well I can seat you, but you’d have to be done by 8.” It was 6:20 and we accepted his offer. The place inside was really welcoming: bright enough to be homey but dark enough to be mysterious. I liked it.
Frequently when I suggest a place for dinner with Lisa I look the menu up online to make sure there are vegetarian options. Here, all the entrees were meat or fish-based but the appetizers and sides had some considerable vegetarian choices. We chose the most lauded vegetarian appetizer (lauded in Bruni’s review and on the menupages site): zucchini sauted with almonds and served with pecorino.
At first it tasted really simple—too much of what you’d expect to taste like. But about halfway through the second bite, you start to appreciate the subtlety of the flavors. “I’m really starting to like this,” I said. “Me too,” said Lisa.
For my entree, I had the “sauteed muscovy duck breast with breakfast radish, anchovy, and orange segments.”
It’s peculiar, one might think, to pair anchovy with duck, but I was grateful for it. Usually duck sauces are too sweet (like Chinese “duck sauce” which is supersweet) and the anchovy added a salty briny layer to the flavors. The duck was expertly prepared and the sides were intriguing—I’d never had radish prepared this way. I liked it.
Lisa had two vegetarian sides which was plenty. There was baked polenta with stewed tomatoes and parmesan: (blurry, I apologize)
And totally awesome “light tempura of green beans with sweet hot mustard”:
I declared these the best part of the whole meal. They were crispy, salty, and bright and the sauce was sweet and hot. I ate more of them than Lisa did.
Leaving the Red Cat, my primary emotion was one of possessive gratitude. This place is in MY neighborhood. I’ll come here someday to celebrate my first Broadway show or my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. (Did I mention I have a daughter? Her name’s Simcha and she’s imaginary.) But, like Waldy’s Pizza, I wouldn’t tell someone from far away to journey to Chelsesa just to eat here. It’s special enough for ME to return to, but not special enough for someone to make a pilgrimage. Well, I mean, you could make a day of it. Go to a gallery or something and then go to The Red Cat. But when I think of places worth journeying to—Prune, Peter Luger’s, Pearl Oyster Bar–they all start with the letter P. Red Cat does not. But it sure made me purr. [This is the worst concluding paragraph I’ve ever written.]