During the gray, rainy afternoon that was Saturday, Anttrob called to say hi. Anttrob and Tea live in NJ and seldom do Wife and I get to see them, so as always on a day when we have no plans and I have them on the phone, I said, "what a crappy day, you guys should jump on a train and come to the city and we can all get dinner." Happily, they said sure, which rarely happens, so Wife and I set about trying to figure out a good place for dinner.
There were many factors to consider in our choice. First, we would need to be able to walk in because the variable time involved in their spontaneously driving to the train, jumping on the next one, and getting to NY, and the fact that we would then want to catch up a little, ruled out setting a reservation. Second, we wanted a good place with good food, but a large crowd would detract from our ability to pay attention and talk. Thirdly, and most importantly, the restaurant needed to be reasonably priced. Anttrob and Tea like food but are not foodies and Anttrob would never let me pay, so I would feel bad hooking him into one of the meals I love that seem expensive to his tastes in food.
Wife's genius idea was Inside. Inside is a little place on Jones street in the West Village that has an awesome watermelon, feta, and soft-shell crab salad in late summer that we love and always get over there to have at least once each year. Inside is off one of the Village streets suburbanites like to walk, under one of those scaffolds that you believe will never go away, so it doesn't get inundated with foot traffic except when someone makes the wrong left. Except for the mention in The New Yorker's "Tables for Two" column which first brought us there, I have never seen it in the press, so it's seldom full of trend followers. The food is well prepared and creative in that new American school way; a smaller, humbler, cheaper version of thinking like GT and Gotham. The room is long, narrow, simple, and well appointed. There is a series of art plates hanging over the bar that seems to say, "we are happy to decorate but we are a restaurant, not a food showroom."
So off we went, on a cool, rainy, Saturday evening in spring, to Inside for a late dinner. The place was half full with twenty-something couples out for a romantic evening and a party of about eight celebrating a birthday with Mylar balloons and all the trappings. So far so good.
Seasons are changing -- a tough time for a place that subscribes to the seasonal, fresh ingredient school of thought -- so, while I was feeling early spring, those ingredients aren't in the market yet and I was faced with a still rather hearty dwindling-days-of-winter menu, from which I picked some of the lighter fare.
My appetizer was salt & pepper shrimp with a confit of grapefruit. Served on an undressed bed of rocket (real arugula) with sections of preserved grapefruit, the shrimp had been hammered in some very hot oil so that their shells were edible but, since they were split up the back, I opted to free them from the shells and eat them with the salad. The pepperiness of the greens and the coarse black peeper from the shrimp, well cooled by the acids and sweetness in the grapefruit , made for a nice, clean, warm-up salad.
For dinner, I had the housemade fettuccini with asparagus, lemon & pinenuts in the small size. Bright with acids, the asparagus was nicely pared and well cooked. There was a hearty sprinkle of parmesan cheese bringing a lactic touch to the acidity while tempering the lemon just enough. The dish would have been better named asparagus and lemon broth with cheese and pine nuts, though. The fettuccini was the smallest part of the dish proportionately and almost an afterthought (a little overdose of the wrong part of American thinking as it regards pasta, as well made and prepared pasta should be the focus of a pasta dish, not the condiment).
For dessert, they all split a banana split with malted milk ball ice cream, chocolate sauce, and peanut brittle dust. There was none left so I assume it was good.
Just because you don't always have the foresight, time, energy, motivation or money to commit to a dinner at a place like Craft on a given night, shouldn't mean you can't eat well-prepared food made by a chef with a philosophy and an edict. Most of the restaurants in New York that target their entrees to the less costly half of the twenty dollar range seem to unapologetically offer crap. In this town, the dollar value seems to exist in the luxury restaurants or in the hot dog shops, which is why sometimes it seems exceptional to find an unassuming, good place doing a good job with good ingredients. Inside is such a place. Check it out.