Saturday night in Nolita and the elderflower wine spritzers go down like spa water after a massage—hydrating the body, curbing the appetite. Women sing greetings of “Oh, my God, you look sooo good,” and bros impress the knickers off their dates with $100 platters of seafood from the raw bar. The host is all smiles but knows to keep the comfy booths against the wall empty all evening, just in case someone important shows up with an entourage.
Ken & Cook’s decor is faux brasserie: light tiles, dark banquettes, the windows open to Kenmare Street. On hot days like this one, the HVAC system that snakes its way along the ceiling dribbles sweat like the last guy standing on the dancefloor, and it’s someone’s job to reach up with a rag on a stick and catch the droplets before they fall.
19 Kenmare once housed Little Charlie’s Clam Bar and its giant platters of clams oreganata. In a kind of winky-face remembrance, Ken & Cook has christened its clubby downstairs lounge—which opens officially for Fashion Week—”Lil’ Charlie’s.” But a fresh, springy nest of linguine with clams, which you’ll find on the menu, is a better homage ($22). The big pile of noodles is dressed in a light sauce of white wine and butter, with a cute garnish of fried clams in addition to the ones in the shell. Oysters Rockefeller ($17) are expensive but good: four fat, juicy fellows, each in an airy puff of spinach, topped with a fine layer of crispy crumbs. If you go to Ken & Cook to eat, those are the dishes to order.
Manager Artan Gjoni and chef Richard Diamonte both come from the restaurant universe of French super chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for whom Diamonte spent the past three years working as a sous-chef. But the menu at Ken & Cook is a pastiche of Euro and American, comfort and classic. And in many cases, the food struggles. On one night, the warm biscuits on a plate of generic fried chicken ($19) were actually inedible, so loaded with baking powder they could qualify as comfort food only under conditions of extreme duress. On another night, the biscuits were quite alright, but the thick wedge of fennel with a piece of whiffy monkfish ($26) was unpleasantly crunchy and undercooked, and the glaze on a titanic pork chop ($26) was as sweet as cafeteria syrup. Mussels ($22) were up to their gills in chorizo. But looking around at Ken & Cook, no one seemed bothered.
Two tall women wearing short dresses, glittering hoop earrings, and precise black eyeliner stride in at 9 o’ clock, smacking of perfumed lotions. They share a snap pea salad, a bottle of Malbec, and possibly a hair colorist. Behind them, against the walls of backlit bottles, handsome waiters break into dance for 30 exquisite seconds, twirling and leaping to a techno remix of Chopin’s funeral march. They high-five, but then it’s back to zealously taking away our plates. Every few minutes, someone wants to know, “Are you finished yet?”
Desserts here are miserable. The beignets are eggy, and vapid whipped cream crowns a sundae. Chocolate cake ($8) is an insipid sponge, as if Jenny Craig and AirTran collaborated to bring us the latest in highly portable, low-fat cake alternatives. It arrives with strawberry ice cream, weakly flavored and shot through with ice crystals. The diner-style root beer float is a safer choice: a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a maraschino cherry, an open bottle of Virgil’s Root Beer. But chances are you’ll be interrupted well before you’ve reached the bottom of your glass, since everyone at Ken & Cook has somewhere to go after this, including the staff.
“Hey, are you finished yet?”