As co-owner of the bawdy late-night theater the Box, Richard Kimmel is well acquainted with the tantalizing effects of dramatic flair and heightened suspense. His second act, a Jewish soul-food speakeasy called Kitty’s Canteen (9 Stanton Street) on a still-grimy expanse of Stanton Street, has atmosphere to spare. The restaurant’s metal gate is kept closed, its entrance unmarked. Packed to the gills with preciously curated feline curios, it’s equal parts Harlem Renaissance bordello and hoarder-grandparent Florida condo. Artist Molly Crabapple scrawled lively anthropomorphic cat-caricature murals on nearly every vertical surface, one of which uses more than 30 feet of $1,000-a-yard de Gournay wallpaper as its canvas and recalls Basquiat and Warhol’s collaborative defacement series as much as Harold and the Purple Crayon.
An impressive Where’s Waldo?-style mural — decorated with cat-people counterparts of, among others, Betty Page, Bootsy Collins, and Snoop Dogg (an investor in the venue) — presides over the claustrophobic dining alcove, a sardine can that allows barely enough room for servers to squeeze between tables. It would feel secluded if quarters weren’t so close as to require side-by-side dining around banquettes that line the space, turning the room into a single oversize booth with communal seating and the unavoidable consequence of being privy to everyone else’s conversations. The main room’s not much better, with tables crammed in and a bulky reclaimed bench that, when occupied, blocks the path to the bathroom.
Any suspense that might be derived from anticipation turns to tedium and, finally, dread. One night, a wait quote of 15 minutes devolved into an hour-long standing-room-only experience as groups descended upon the narrow entryway, hugging and kissing management and a co-owner or two (though no sign of Snoop) before we were led to one of the dining room’s few tables, wedged between a banister and a wall. Menus plopped down, followed by the hostess, who joined a nearby table of elderly gentlemen for several minutes before venturing the few feet to the bar area…to check on customers? No, customers could wait. It was time to dance (and check her phone). Hard to blame her for feeling the groove, though: Kitty’s spins Curtis Mayfield, Billie Holiday, and the like on vinyl (occasionally hand-selected by Kimmel, who has been known to roam the dining room wearing a Viking helmet and leopard-print robe). When staff members adjourn from their own revelry, they’re enthusiastic. We felt the glow of that enthusiasm precisely twice over the course of an hour on one of our visits. Drinks took 20 to 30 minutes to arrive each time, and when they did, results were hit or miss. Most successful is the $16 “Kitten Flip,” a gin-based cocktail flavored with golden beets that had been unavailable on a previous visit owing to a lack of egg whites. (Tonight they’re out of Chartreuse for the “Pussy Proper.”) A punny name couldn’t compensate for sloppy execution of the “Meow Meow Punch” — $18 bought me the privilege of picking coarsely chopped mint leaves from my face after each sip.
Finally our server, dressed in a bra and palazzo trousers, knelt and addressed the menus in our hands. “So, let’s talk,” she purred.
Southern-inflected Jewish cuisine isn’t a manufactured premise. Just ask Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo, a history of Jewish cooking in the South. Here, chef Mark Spangenthal, who most recently tended the burners at Kutsher’s Tribeca, brings a suitably schmaltzy take to Southern classics. Served in shallow bowls, Spangenthal’s soup begins with a deeply flavored chicken broth buoying thick-cut carrots, mustard greens, and a single fluffy orb the size of a baseball. While not the most daring twist, it’s a sensible one, and the soup hits all the right nostalgic notes. Matzoh also crusts Kitty’s fried chicken, served with a peppery, near-molten spoon bread and rich, pastrami-spiced gravy. Even the breast portions break open with an audible crunch to expose a juicy interior.
The remainder of the menu has as many hills and valleys as the drinks list. Latkes land on the table over-fried, the shriveled pancakes accompanied by splats of applesauce and sour cream, as if from an old-school deli that has given up. But brook trout (“Kitty’s Catch”) over sunchokes sports beautifully crisp skin and homey flavor. There’s also properly melting brisket and a loosely packed burger covered in schmaltz onion soubise. Smothered “Roumanian” steak conjures images of stalwart Sammy’s Roumanian two blocks north, only the beef’s better here, thinly sliced and pink throughout. Desserts include daily cake and pie selections. Though it’s more like a bread pudding sitting in créme anglaise, a “Chocolate Babka Sundae” was decadent and enjoyable.
At Kutsher’s, Spangenthal interpreted Borscht Belt cuisine inspired by the legendary Catskills resort of the same name. At Kitty’s, though, the joke’s on the diner, and kitchen prowess alone isn’t going to change that. The steak here might have the edge on Sammy’s, but the real party’s still the one that’s happening around the corner.