Real food—a nice plate arranged for eating, not photography—slipped off sometime between Julia Child and the Iron Chef without so much as a tip of the hat. In dishes that seem to have been fussed over by 1000 elfin hands, it has been reduced to the phallic sprig of rosemary, the balkanized veggies, and the fortresses of beet chunks. Sure, it lives at diners and mom-and-pop places in the boroughs, but it’s increasingly difficult to find a midpriced spot where the fare hasn’t been fiddled to death. Or so I thought, until I found the Cornelia Street Café. Dubbed “a culinary as well as cultural landmark” by mayoral proclamation in 1987, this café-cum–entertainment venue remains a Village secret well concealed from outlanders. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it combines the best of Euro café with the American informality of a meat-and-three joint. Casual during the day, it whips out the white tablecloths and ratchets up the charm in the evening.
I fell in with a friend on a Saturday afternoon when it was too late to snag a table at Pó or Home, the stars of the one-block street. Not expecting much, we were charmed from the moment we got the menu from a waiter who was always attentive yet never intrusive, and knew we had a winner when we put fork to the duck confit served with mesclun, roasted potatoes, and preserved cranberries ($10 on the daytime menu). The crisp-on-the-outside-tender-within fowl went with the rosemary-scented spuds like chicken with dumplings. My only cavil was that there just weren’t enough of the sweetly tart berries to go with each bite. The boudin blanc ($9 on the daytime menu) was equally spectacular—densely toothsome with just a hint of fennel, it was grand with a slaw of thick strips of red cabbage that also played sweet-and-sour. The cranberry apple crisp continued the leitmotif, eliciting an “Oh my God that’s incredible” from my usually taciturn friend, who shared nary a bite. Immediately the place moved to the top of my must-return list.
I did, with two foodie girlfriends who’d had enough of chichi cuisine. We were disturbed when our table rocked a little, but our waitress remedied the problem in a jiffy. One of my guests began with a salad notable for, of all things, its saltiness, just enough to bring out the sweetly delicate taste of the lettuces and the lactic acidity of the puck of melted chèvre that topped them ($5). She finished with the boudin ($14), which lived up to its billing like Bette at the Baths. The other noshed a hearty fennel-scented pâté served with tarragon mustard ($7)—none of your artfully arranged slices, two hefty slabs—before attacking a grilled chicken breast. Perched on a mound of buttery mashed with a crown of carrots and a topping of frizzled leeks, it was divine—hearty, homemade, and handsome ($14). I held out and reveled in a satisfying burger with a melt of the same chèvre teamed with pickled red onions, dill pickles, and really good fries ($10). Dessert stayed on the simple tip—a wedge of zingy ginger spice cake in a puddle of hard sauce ($6) and a palate-cleansing passion-fruit sorbet with a chocolate dipstick cookie for crunch ($5). We gossiped and greased well into the evening and left confident that real food is alive and thriving in capable hands on Cornelia Street.