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History. Twenty years ago it was International Stud, a gay bar that inspired the Harvey Fierstein play of the same name. Ten years later 117 Perry Street housed Caribe, a greasy spoon offering the greatest hits of several Caribbean cuisines in less-than-inspiring renditions, but—more important to its enthusiastic mix of patrons—served in humongous portions. Recently, the space evolved into Voyage, an ambitious neighborhood bistro where chef Scott Barton invents witty variations on Caribbean and soul food standards, tossing in influences that range from French to Indian.
Best Dish. One perfect dish exemplifies Barton’s approach: a pair of big scallops, seared on both sides but left rare in the middle, are planted on a levee of grits—not the instant kind that come from a box, but old-fashioned grainy grits that taste freshly milled. Below flows a muddy river of red-eye gravy, the Southern favorite that’s mainly coffee and lard, here rather delicately interpreted. As if this quadrille of mellow flavors weren’t enough, black truffle shavings are added, making the subterranean fungus taste like it was sniffed out and dug up in Mississippi. (Truffled scallops, $14.)
The Setting. While Caribe was a jungle of potted foliage, featuring a boisterous bar in front of a hide-and-seek dining room, Voyage has banned the color green and opened up both spaces. The dining room is a delight: circled with banquettes underneath walls upholstered like a Victorian couch in tobacco brown fabric. Six black-and-white photos are symmetrically mounted, each originating in Cuba and showing a working-class man of color who couldn’t afford to eat here staring straight ahead, a cigar provocatively thrust from his mouth. It’s hard to put your finger on their expressions, which vacillate between glare and leer. Though the waitress observed that the exhibit is temporary, the room wouldn’t be the same without them, and the work establishes a leitmotif for the restaurant extended by the decor and assertively flavored food.
Food Porn. Favorite appetizers include thickly crusted oxtail croquettes bathed in “bacon jus” ($10), presenting tremendously concentrated flavor in a small package; long-cooked babyback ribs in a light tomato sauce studded with crunchy peanuts, served with a lemon-scented napkin for cleaning your pinkies; and a New Orleans-y ramekin of spoon bread smothered in crawfish sauce. All are available in a special bar menu, which allows you to experience Voyage without blowing a wad. Among the entrées, I prefer tender braised pork loin sided with a picadillo-stuffed plantain ($20), and cod crusted with dal, deposited in a sauce that tastes like the cilantro chutney you get in Indian joints and accompanied by a pair of pureed-cauliflower samosas. Skip the lackluster baby fried chicken at the bar unless you’re a big fan of Swanson TV dinners. Desserts mix Southern/creole standards like a sticky, dark, and unforgettably good apple pain perdu, and off-the-wall improvisations, like a warm spin on bubble tea that finds pearls of tapioca and toasted almonds submerged in thick foamy cappuccino—against all odds, it works.
Sociological Implications. The evolution of 117 Perry Street mirrors the changing neighborhood. A hot gay bar is supplanted by a budget Caribbean restaurant that becomes a destination for folks from other regions of the city, including a substantial number of black and Latin patrons, creating one of the rare restaurants where races freely mix. This spot is supplanted by one twice as expensive, serving highbrow food in a similar vein in smaller portions to a predominantly Caucasian crowd. On the positive side, the kitchen now boasts one of New York’s only African American chefs, a talented innovator who is giving the city one of its first glimpses of New Southern cooking, a style that’s become popular in cities like Atlanta and Birmingham over the last decade.