An unusual thing happened after my first few meals at Kenmare, a self-propelling hot spot in Manhattan’s Nolita district: I had a hard time recalling what I’d eaten there. Alcohol wasn’t the culprit. It was a case of gustatory ennui.
To jog my memory, I visited Kenmare’s website. No dice; it’s way too cool for relevant information.
Luckily, I took notes, so I can report that the halibut was neither overcooked nor undercooked. It was fine.
Then there was “The Chicken,” the definite article pompously part of its title on the menu. The breast was whole. The leg shredded and smoked. It too was fine, albeit underseasoned and equally unremarkable on a later visit.
I had the “TLO meatball sliders,” whose name includes a silly insider-ism for The Little Owl, the tiny West Village boite where the dish had its debut and whose chef, Joey Campanaro, also runs the kitchen here.
How did the sliders taste? Like sauced meat on a bun, like any other leftover. I quickly forgot about them.
Of course, the place is hard to get into. Make a reservation two weeks ahead unless you plan to eat very early or very late.
Kenmare’s otherwise savvy brain trust -- Paul Sevigny of the erstwhile Beatrice Inn, Nur Khan of Rose Bar -- have given New York a fair, forgettable restaurant, another mess hall-cum-social club (see also: Waverly Inn, Monkey Bar, The Lion).
Hosts, who don’t deign to welcome you or send you off with a “Come back soon,” are otherwise friendly once you crack their defensive gazes. Walk past the human statues and sit at one of seven tables for walk-ins; they’re in a lounge area where there actually seems to be more room behind the bar than in front of it.
Campanaro tips his hat to the volatile weather with a satisfying summer-meets-winter combo: Basil gnocchi and short-rib ragu. But the pasta’s too gummy to sop up the beefy goodness. Then there’s tangy and wonderfully salty broccoli, beer and cheddar soup, which may not fit the season, but who cares?
Sardines were perfectly overcooked. Veal cutlet wasn’t as thin or wan as other versions around town; neither was it memorable. Same for strip steak, which arrived medium rare as ordered, with an average beefy taste.
There were two shellfish standouts: chunks of lobster in a plate of toothsome spaghetti with tomato sauce, and risotto with shrimp and cherry tomatoes that jangle the palate with jolts of sweetness.
Curry, garlic and rosemary coax the gentle gaminess of a lamb T-bone -- another Little Owl reprise -- into sweet succulence. The pleasure is mitigated by the cigarette smoke if you’re sitting by the open-air doors, beyond which patrons regularly pop out for a puff. Maximum second-hand exposure is guaranteed. Marble tables amplify noise; the lighting is dim.
Is this where Campanaro wants diners to have their first exposure to his signature lamb? A few visits to Little Owl suggest that Kenmare is diluting the chef’s brand.
The halibut, a sleeper at Kenmare, is cosseted by lobster ravioli at the Owl, balanced by a tart, fragrant lobster bullion. The fish flakes like a perfectly cooked potato; it would even fool vegetarians.
The Owl feels more welcoming then Kenmare even though it’s smaller and harder to get into. In deference to West Village denizens, hosts stop answering the phones after 5:00 p.m. If you don’t have a reservation, be prepared to wait as long as 90 minutes.
For some, it may be worth it, because you sit not at a packed bar, but on a padded shelf that overlooks the tiny restaurant. It’s stunning. And so is this: soft squid, the neutral counterpoint to a broth of tomatoes with salty lardo croutons.
“The Pork Chop,” a briny, 2-inch-thick hit of fennel-spiked ecstasy is a steak disguised as swine. Kenmare’s “The Chicken” is no competition.
The corner-store ambience and ambitious American fare is what sent New Yorkers into a fever about the Owl when it opened in 2006; the city was done with mega-eateries like Buddakan and Buddha Bar. The Owl, with its meatball sliders on the cover of Bon Appetit magazine, became a paradox, a destination neighborhood joint, a 32-seat spot with a national following.
What’s sad is that the sheer size of Kenmare will ensure more diners will try the sliders there, which would be a mistake, because the Owl’s neighborly charm is the secret ingredient unavailable at its sibling spot. Sublimely balanced tomato sauce, fluffy breadcrumb-studded meat and buttery buns just taste better in this Sunday-dinner setting.
Ratings: Kenmare: * Little Owl: **
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Most dishes under $30 at both venues.
Sound Level? Loud, 80-85 decibels at both.
Date place? The Owl, yes. Kenmare, no.
Inside tip: Both kitchens might split dishes without your permission to forcibly encourage sharing. It’s annoying.
Special feature? Kenmare’s soft banana beignets.
Will I be back? To the Little Owl; Kenmare probably not.
Kenmare is at 98 Kenmare St. Information: +1-212-274-9898; http://www.kenmarenyc.com/. The Little Owl is at 90 Bedford Street at Grove Street. Information: +1-212-741-4695; http://www.thelittleowlnyc.com/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. No stars Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)