Sunday, August 16, 2009

LWF&D goes Old School

If you've ever spent any time walking around the streets of NYC, you'll notice that in addition to the myriad new, fun, funky restaurants I usually patronize there is a subset of the restaurant world this blog largely neglects. I'm talking, of course, about the Old School establishments. The ones where the decor is shabby, the menu hasn't been updated in 40 years, and the waiters would have long since retired were they working in any other industry. Usually I'm skeptical of these places, but there's a part of me that wonders whether they're actually good-- after all, they've lasted this long for a reason, right? Well, this Friday night, AV and I had a chance to find out.

We headed down the UES to the East River Cafe, a restaurant that had been recommended to AV by a coworker for its superlative gnocchi. As we turned the corner onto 1st Avenue, I noticed the shabby, bird-poop-stained awning over the restaurant's windows, standing in sharp contrast to the sparkling awning of the clearly new-ish restaurant across the street. No matter; we were here for the gnocchi, and gnocchi we (he) would eat.

As soon as we entered the restaurant, our suspicions were confirmed. The aged, gruff host; shabby, frayed napkins and tablecloths; and complete lack of any other patrons under the age of 70 all pointed to one thing: the East River Cafe was Old School. We pressed on, though, placing our order with the middle-aged waiter who clearly couldn't care less and didn't have time for any nonsense. AV asked for a Diet Coke and our waiter brought us two. And changed us for it. We were on our way.

First off: the bread course. This bread course was pretty good, with slightly-better-than-standard white slices and an interesting dipping sauce. We each dug into the pool of oil filled with chopped olives, peppers, and garlic, silently consigning ourselves to an evening full of significant-other dragon breath.

Bread in shabby napkin

Our entrees came out shortly thereafter. AV's was an absolutely enormous plate of gnocchi-- and by "enormous," plate I mean truly enormous, probably a foot and a half in diameter and requiring the busboy to use both hands to lift when empty. AV's gnocchi came with a light cream tomato sauce packed with veal, and he pronounced it stellar. The ERC's reputation for gnocchi excellence was upheld.

For plate size reference, check out the width of AV's torso in the background

My choice was a spinach salad with raspberries and feta, dressing on the side. Kudos to the ERC for providing an abundant bed of greens; too often, restaurants really skimp out on the leafy elements of a salad, which to me provides the bulk of the dining experience, both literally and figuratively. The raspberries were fresh, and the feta was tasty and ample. But otherwise there wasn't much going on with the salad-- it wasn't particularly special or memorable, and the dressing was little but oil.

Greens and little else

I had some bakery treats packed away at home, so we skipped the half-heartedly proferred dessert and made our exit. While the food at ERC was okay, the dining experience was pretty dismal. It was clear that the restaurant hadn't been updated in a very, very long time, and the lack of care showed in various ways, from the abysmal service to the fact that the women's bathroom smelled overwhelmingly of pee. There are plenty of places in the city where you can go to get good pasta, so ERC is a two-Offset Spatula joint not even worth recommending. Subconsciously, I really wanted my preconcieved notions about Old School restaurants to be upended, but sadly ERC just confirmed them. I think I'll stick to the modern era from now on.

East River Cafe
1111 First Avenue, at 61st Street

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