Dining at Ground Zero

Times Staff Writer

More than six months after terrorists dealt New York a devastating blow, the city is getting on with things. Tourists are venturing back, and many are inevitably drawn downtown to the haunting ground zero site, as I was recently. Some come to grieve. Some come to empathize. And some end up eating nearby, which has to be one of the strangest dining experiences anywhere: saddening, undeniably macabre and, at the same time, heartening.

Going out to dine in the shadow of ground zero would be unthinkable if it weren’t an act of defiance in the face of terrorism and a vote of support for the beleaguered neighborhood, vigorously endorsed by the former New York mayor and the present one. When you do make your way downtown, moved, curious and half-afraid of what you’ll encounter, you can’t help but admire New York’s resilience. And precisely because the restaurants below Canal Street have been so hard hit, you find yourself rooting for every one of them.

For months closed streets made access difficult to this neighborhood at the southern tip of Manhattan. Restaurants that were about to debut when the towers came tumbling down halted plans midstream. Most managed to open, but weeks or months later. And those that were already established hung on, hoping things would get better. Downtown restaurants may not be bustling, but they’re back.

Whether you choose to reserve a white-clothed table at Chanterelle or Danube, go bistro at Brasserie Les Halles Downtown or tuck into steaks at Harry’s on Hanover Square, eating downtown offers one of the more unusual dining experiences anywhere.

The Harrison opened in November, one of the first places below Canal Street to do so since the attacks, and it seemed the entire city cheered it on. If you had to design a restaurant to suit the spirit of the moment, this would be it. Cozy and welcoming, with its long bar, white clapboard walls and French doors onto the street, the Harrison already feels like a neighborhood institution. Against all odds, the place is packed.

After catching a cab or walking the bleak blocks from the subway, intrepid diners come in from the cold to the warm embrace of this American bistro from the owners of Red Cat in Chelsea. Who wouldn’t be cheered by appetizers like homemade bresaola (air-dried beef) with garlic- and olive oil-doused fettunta (“oiled bread”) topped with pungent Taleggio cheese, or honey and lime-glazed quail served atop a savory stew of white beans, bacon and thyme? There’s a great grilled pork chop, pan-crisped chicken in a lemony mustard sauce with mashed potatoes, prime shell steak with rather too much balsamic vinegar sauce, and a terrific skillet-cooked calf’s liver, cut thick and propped on a delicious bacon-onion torta, or cake.

Service is as friendly as it gets in New York. We’re all aware of what’s at stake, and it elicits a touching sense of camaraderie. We’re here, defiant, eating out. It’s a small step. And though the staff puts a brave face on it, there’s no forgetting where you are. From my table, at the back of the restaurant, I can see a flare of white klieg lights and realize that just blocks away the world drops off. Yet when you emerge, a woman walks her dog; someone rides by on a bike.

Also new is Brasserie Les Halles Downtown, a few blocks from ground zero. The original, on Park Avenue South, is infamous as the kitchen where Anthony Bourdain, author of the best-selling tell-all book “Kitchen Confidential” and star of the new Food Network TV series “A Cook’s Tour,” is executive chef. The formula at this spot is identical to the midtown location’s. At lunch anyone who hasn’t reserved is relegated to a seat at the mahogany bar, piled with glasses. Waiters ferry platters of oysters and clams, French onion soup under coverlets of cheese, the pâté du jour (definitely worth getting), a dozen variations on steamed mussels and endless orders of steak frites. A wine bottle sits on almost every table. It looks as if downtown’s appetite has come back with a vengeance.

I’m ravenous. Next to me, a seasoned lawyer interviews a younger colleague over a hefty steak sandwich on a baguette. To my left, two businessmen speculate about what’s going to be built on the twin towers site while I cut into my onglet (hangar steak) with a wood-handled “gaucho” knife. The steak is the real thing, chewy and flavorful, and, from my small sampling, by far the best thing on the menu. Aside from sitting a little too long before they were brought to the table, my moules poulette, steamed mussels with a swirl of cream and chives, are fine. The deep gold fries that come with it are crisp but taste mealy, which often signifies precut frozen spuds. Why am I not surprised that my tarte Tatin is burnt on the bottom? The food, in fact, is at about the same level you would get in an ordinary brasserie on any city square in France. It’s the life of the place that everyone craves more than any gastronomic experience.

Just as we leave, a firetruck pulls up, and two young firemen get out. Standing on the sidewalk, joking, they look heartbreakingly young to be shadowed by all those who were lost that day. Meanwhile, two blocks away, visitors line up near St. Paul’s Chapel (where George Washington prayed after he became president in 1789, and which survived the attacks unscathed) and make their way to the viewing platform, past the broken, soot-darkened headstones of the chapel’s ancient graveyard.

The next day it begins to snow as we walk south along Hudson Street in TriBeCa. In front of Danube, chef/owner David Bouley’s elegant Austrian restaurant, I notice a sandwich board announcing the weekday three-course fixed-price lunch for $21. This is an unbelievable bargain: Danube is ordinarily one of the most expensive restaurants in the city. We walk in, and I remove my coat in a jewel-box marble foyer. At 1:30 p.m. the restaurant is half full--a few couples, the odd business lunch. Three generations of a Russian-speaking family fill a long, festive table.

With its white lacquered ceiling, plum velvet banquettes and Gustav Klimt-inspired paintings, Danube’s ornate dining room is a vision of turn-of-the-century luxury. Outside the tall windows framed by cut velvet drapes, snowflakes pirouette in front of scaffolding hung with an American flag. The red, white and blue charges like a freight train into the serene room.

We know we are in for something serious as soon as the canape arrives: a single ravioli made from translucent sheets of salmon stuffed with a mild cheese and topped with a dollop of sweet-hot mustard. Then come Schlutzkrapfen, supple cheese ravioli with smoked wild mushrooms in brown butter decorated with drops of iridescent red-green pumpkin seed oil. They could blow away with a kiss. As a main course I choose the Kavalierspitz, traditional Austrian boiled beef, which Bouley has elevated to something astonishingly delicious. Dessert is a pear strudel with pastry as ethereal as snowflakes.

That night, on the way to Pico, a Portuguese restaurant around the corner from the Harrison, we pass Chanterelle, David and Karen Waltuck’s distinguished French restaurant. Peering over the sheer half-curtains, I see that only a handful of tables are occupied. With its chandeliers and towering flower arrangement, the restaurant seems like a fragile vessel afloat in a sea of darkness. I’m glad we have a reservation the next night.

At Pico, as we wait briefly for our table, I notice a framed document in an inconspicuous corner: It’s an official thank-you to the restaurant for services rendered to the city of New York in the wake of Sept. 11, when Pico was unofficial headquarters for the Secret Service; sleeping quarters for police, firefighters and rescue workers; and dining hall for volunteers. Imagine the chaos. All I see now is a serene space illuminated by handblown glass chandeliers and furnished with ornate Portuguese armoires and sideboards.

The food at Pico is updated Portuguese, and wonderful. You can start with crisped bacalhau (salt cod) cake with a blood orange and radish salad, or roasted fresh sardines stuffed with coconut and malagueta chile. I particularly like the cockles steamed in vinho verde (Portugal’s “green wine”) with bay and mint. The organic suckling pig, with its crackling crisp skin and wildflower honey glaze, is irresistible, but I also recommend the duck baked in terra-cotta pots with chouriço (chorizo) and served with rice dotted with raisins, or the whole roasted rack of lamb, served with a fennel marmalade. And for dessert, the sonhos (“dreams”), miniature fritters scented with cinnamon, meant to be dipped in raspberry jam or a bittersweet chocolate sauce. Study up on Portuguese wines before you come, or the list may be difficult to decipher.

As we walk in TriBeCa the next morning, billboards for luxury condos and penthouse suites, many of them still under construction, seem like notices from a past that has come and gone. Yet fashion designer Issey Miyake’s new flagship Manhattan store, designed by Frank Gehry, has just opened across the street from the neighborhood’s favorite breakfast place, Bubby’s. At this informal cafe, which started life as a pie shop, things feel more or less normal, though less crowded than I remember. And as a result of the crisis they’ve lowered their already low prices. The quintessential TriBeCa hangout, Bubby’s was here long before a single investment banker thought about living the loft life.

Mountain bikes are chained to a pole out front, and winter light streams through the big windows onto a casual room of mismatched chairs, chipped painted plywood tables and bus-bench banquettes. Downtown artist types, mothers with baby strollers, joggers and people on their way to work stop by for banana-walnut pancakes, hickory-smoked slab bacon and eggs over easy, along with Bubby’s seductive grits. For a toddler, a waiter brings out an old-fashioned wood toy. Next to me, a blond woman in her 40s meets with a potential financial advisor. “What are your goals?” he asks, a question that takes on new meaning in a neighborhood where 9/11 is always on your mind.

At Chanterelle that evening, the dining room is full. The crowd seems like regulars who have been dining at the chic French restaurant for the past decade or two. Lawyer and power broker Vernon Jordan is at one table, engaged in quiet conversation. At another, some Upper East Siders are entertaining guests. It’s a good turnout for a weeknight, and I hope the fact that the sommelier is not only serving wine but also taking orders and clearing plates doesn’t mean the picture isn’t as rosy as it looks that night.

The food is indulgent, old-style French cuisine from an American chef with a passion for everything French. The format is prix fixe, $84 for the less expensive menu, $95 for the six-course full tasting menu. Though the choices change frequently, signature dishes such as the grilled seafood sausage are always a good bet. It’s a superb, remarkably tender sausage with chunks of lobster and scallop, served in a lovely beurre blanc, which makes it ideal with a white Burgundy. Also recommended: Maine sea scallops with earthy lentils and black truffles, and a classic sauté of sweetbreads with sherry vinegar, and crepinette of guinea hen wrapped in lacy caul fat to keep the bird moist. For dessert, the prune-Armagnac soufflé is terrific. It turns out that on weekdays Chanterelle, too, has a reasonable fixed-price lunch.

On a Sunday night at Nobu, L.A. chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s eccentric TriBeCa Japanese place, it’s definitely a local crowd--maybe because it’s raining hard, making downtown more of a committed trek. Though Nobu was able to reopen about two weeks after Sept. 11, the manager explains, they’ve lost the after-work customers from businesses that have fled the area, and residents who had to move out after the attacks are only now coming back. But for those of us who don’t have the patience for endless redialing, it’s now possible to make a reservation at this perpetually popular spot.

The menu is an edited-down version of Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, but you can also simply ask for omakase (chef’s choice), choosing your price level. We choose the mid-range $100-per-person omakase. Some of the dishes are appealing, like Kumamoto oysters warmed improbably with a blowtorch and set off by a paste of monkfish liver with a squeeze of yuzu--a tangy Japanese citrus fruit--or the chef’s signature sashimi garnished with jalapeño and citrus. Seared halibut in a black truffle crust is an easy pleaser. Bottom line, though: It’s more difficult to get top-grade fish in New York than in Los Angeles, so the quality of the sushi here is sometimes less than expected.

One afternoon we stopped in at Harry’s on Hanover, a stockbrokers’ hangout on the ground floor of a historic Financial District building that sits on what was once the edge of New York Harbor. I heard waiters murmur “Good to see you again” over and over as the lunch crowd left. At the bar, the TV was tuned to MSNBC’s stock report. Harry’s is a congenial place. It’s basically a chophouse, New York’s version of Musso & Frank, but with better wines from a famously well-stocked cellar.

Upstairs is a private club called India House, but after 3 p.m. the bar opens to the public. And at night the dining room becomes Bayard’s, the restaurant where Eberhard Müller (who cooked at Opus in L.A. in the early ‘90s, then at Lutèce in New York) is now chef. A regal mahogany staircase leads to the second-floor dining room, decorated with chinoiserie and paintings of ships. With its fine wood chairs, white linens and widely spaced tables, Bayard’s is a civilized haven in a town where tables are usually crammed so closely together that it’s impossible to have a private conversation. And it’s worth going a good deal out of your way in order to taste what Müller is doing at Bayard’s.

His oxtail terrine studded with nuggets of foie gras makes my evening. I love a pale green celery root soup swirled with walnut pesto, and the smoked cod, cured like gravlax and paired with peppery arugula. There’s an amazing tuna tartare with all its purity of flavor intact, delicious with the grit of fleur de sel sea salt. The special that night is a chicken breast topped with foie gras, wrapped in crinkly Savoy cabbage leaves, steamed and served in a splash of hyper-rich broth, worth the entire dish. I’d recommend the slow-roasted veal shank for two as well, and the gloriously fresh Dover sole. I’m still trying to figure out how to re-create Müller’s beguiling pear soufflé.

Dining downtown I’m always aware, like a compass needle pointing north, exactly where I am in relation to the phantom buildings of the World Trade Center. But dinner in this wonderful old building that has lived through nearly two centuries of the city’s history brings home the fact that New York will endure.

Back in L.A., I stop by a friend’s house for tea and notice a photo of the World Trade Center on her refrigerator. I don’t think anything of it until she tells me she took it on Sept. 10. I look again. Taken from a footpath along the water, it’s blurred in one corner, but there in the distance, shimmering in the light, are the twin towers, so improbably tall they could well be a mirage.

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S. Irene Virbila is the Times’ restaurant critic.

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