The perennial favorite of the dining-and-dancing crowd, Nell’s ruled its lonely stretch of West 14th Street for over 15 years. Now stiff competition has arrived, at least as far as eating is concerned. Opening a few doors east, Crispo was instantly thronged with scenesters prepared to worship a Lupa-like trattoria that offered prosciutto sliced on a hand-cranked machine, decent pastas, modish grilled pizzas, and hanger steak, all from behind an ornate facade that looked like a Moulin Rouge set. A week later, and with far less fanfare, Kloe debuted across the street. While the food at Crispo is entirely likable, Kloe offers a brainier menu that takes culinary chances—ultimately producing more memorable meals, though it’s still fighting to garner its share of the clamorous crowd.
I was blown away by an appetizer of sweetbreads ($10), nervous tissue that’s hard to get right. Well handled, the gland transforms into airy balloons, with a fascinating texture not unlike fresh ricotta. In the wrong hands, it turns greasy, grainy, flat. At Kloe (named for the chef’s grandmother), two or three lobes of varying girth are crusted in macadamia nuts and flash-fried, preserving their lightness and helping you forget they’re pure cholesterol. Perching them on a thin disk of puff pastry is a brilliant inspiration, preventing the sweetbreads from becoming soggy in the tart yellow sauce.
You’ll be seeing that disk of puff pastry again. It also cameos in an appetizer of seared foie gras ($14) garnished with homemade peach jam, the pastry squeezed between liver and roasted artichoke fragments. Less persuasively, the flaky frisbee stands in for the expected pie crust in an apple tart, by which time you’re not glad to see it. Other appetizers nearly reach the level of thoughtfulness seen in the sweetbreads, including a geometric beet salad ($8) that looks like a corporate campus, with a round tower of red beets, cooked firm, interleaved with goat cheese and poised adjacent to a splayed stack of haricots vert and a heap of red and yellow baby plum tomatoes. Only the tuna tartare bombed—while its jicama kimchee platform was welcome, the mass of raw fish was a damp, sticky mess.
Chef Erica Miller’s eclectic cooking—which sparingly incorporates elements from Asia, the Middle East, France, Mexico, and the American Southwest—has its antecedents in town, most especially in the inspired cooking of Anita Lo at Annisa on Jones Street. Like Lo, Miller works wonders with a rabbit loin. The tender white meat melds with spinach and mashed turnip ($20), presented as a series of cylinders guarded by a handful of roasted chestnuts. The skin of a plump duck breast, sliced thick and served rare, is crusted with a coating of zatar, a Middle Eastern spice combo that, confusingly, incorporates an herbal cousin of oregano also called zatar. Extending the Middle Eastern theme, a miniature boreka accompanies, stuffed with sweet potatoes instead of the usual meat or cheese.
Miller gives her numerous vegetarian selections the same respect routinely afforded to flesh. Besides the aforementioned beet tower there’s a cheese and tomato tart (thankfully, with a real crust instead of a puff-pastry disk); a sunflower-seed-flecked green salad; and an entrée of wild-mushroom ravioli in a fish-free black-truffle “nage” (a term usually reserved for seafood broth). But king of the vegetarians is a daring vegan medley ($16), which, on a recent evening, included glistening baby bok choy, perfectly cooked asparagus, roasted plum tomatoes, and a “brandade” made with tofu. Startlingly, it actually achieves the level of flavor and fibrosity of its Provençale salt-cod-and-mashed-potato prototype, sprayed with tiny chopped chives. Believe me, you won’t miss the cod.