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Downtown's New Haunt: Kenmare Restaurant

On the Lower East Side, Sam Sifton meets the ghost of EC Comics

I often shiver with apprehension when crossing the threshold of the latest overhyped eatery, and Kenmare was no exception. The place is partly owned by Chloë Sevigny's night-clubby brother, Paul—not promising—though the choice of chefs is: Joey Campanaro, whose pedigree includes two hits (Harrison, Little Owl) and one miss (Market Table). Like the name says, the restaurant is located on Kenmare Street, a gritty Lower East Side thoroughfare that takes up where Delancey Street leaves off, then promptly dead-ends into Lafayette Street.

For nearly a century, ending in 2000, the space held Patrissy, an Italian joint that became notorious as a hangout for the staff of EC Comics, who inked Tales From the Crypt and other goth-horror titles in the 1950s, in addition to launching Mad magazine. Indeed, the interior retains a certain sepulchral quality via a vaulted ceiling, arched doorways, dirty-beige stucco, and scary metal sculptures that might remind you of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you seek out the bathrooms down a darkened hallway in the rear, keep your eyes peeled for things that go bump in the night.

Though my date and I made reservations days in advance on our first visit, we were stuck with a 6 p.m. time slot, suggesting that Kenmare was already wildly popular. We weren't the only ones early-birded: Soon after we sat down, the greeter ushered in Jay Cheshes of Time Out and, later, Sam Sifton of the Times. The service had been exceedingly slow, but it improved markedly once Sifton—dressed like an undertaker in a somber charcoal-gray suit with skinny lapels—was seated. For the next hour or so, critics and their cohorts were nearly the only diners in the room.

They also serve "The Chicken," which raises its arm from a bed of butter beans.
Amelia Beamish
They also serve "The Chicken," which raises its arm from a bed of butter beans.

The first dish to hit the table was promising. My date loved the slider ($5), a juicy puck of pork, beef, and veal. (Campanaro is sometimes credited with reinventing this bar morsel at Little Owl.) Less satisfactory was an asparagus gratin ($9) served on a giant plate. As we furiously shoveled like grave diggers, we realized that most of the mass was chopped endive, from which we were able to disinter only five or six mushy asparagus tips. A cup of beer-laced broccoli soup was perfectly edible, but seemed too much like bar food for a fancy restaurant.

An estimable innovation on the part of the chef involves incorporating pastas and risottos into the appetizer list, allowing you to treat them as shareable starters. In one risotto special, a Vesuvius-like heap of truffled rice comes with a raw egg yolk in its crater. Hello, sauce. Similarly tasty is spaghetti with shrimp and lobster in a spicy red fra diavolo gravy ($14).

As I plowed through the entrées, though, it became clear that many were seriously flawed. "Lamb t-bones" ($31) included two gorgeous chops with a blade-like bone running down the middle, charred on the outside while still bloody in the middle. Though the chops were perfectly cooked, our pleasure was curbed by a sticky-sweet glaze, and the meat was crowded by a chaotic heap of boring baby lettuces, so that slicing the chops sent the infants spilling onto the table. Bad plating! With its superior salad of arugula and ricotta salata, a smallish breaded veal cutlet with salsa verde ($25) proved more satisfying, but, as with the lamb, the entrée arrived without any starch. Ordering the cheddar fries with giblet gravy ($8) wasn't the answer; it turned out to be merely another version of poutine.

Following the zeitgeist—and satisfying those who spend time thinking about how to ramp up their omega-3 intake—ocean-going fish predominate on the entrée menu. Steering clear of the creatures whose sustainability is questionable, my friends and I chowed down on arctic char ($23), a good-size piece of fish with its silvery skin cross-hatched from the grill. But the accompaniments provoked a laugh: a thin schmear of puréed turnips and a few shreds of pickled purple cabbage. Featuring four large specimens with no discernible sauce, the scallop entrée also suffered from inferior sides, including a spinach and strawberry salad and a rosti (Swiss lattice potatoes) barely bigger than a silver dollar.

Yes, Kenmare proved disappointing. While the ingredients were unimpeachable, the facile preparation of entrées was a deadly sin, making you wish the kitchen had managed to squirt an additional sauce or two. And the meager accompaniments seem devised for the kind of diner who just eats the flesh and leaves everything else behind. In other words, Kenmare is a place that could make zombies very happy.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

 
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