Glories of Gentrification

A sandwich-and-syrah joint for local literati

Which is to say, it's a fine restaurant, which you should keep in mind as I proceed to pick to bits everything the kitchen sent out. The osso bucco ($19) wasn't, really: It was a huge cross-section of veal shank, braised just long enough to get tough, but not long enough to pick up any interesting flavor from the braising liquid. There was no gremolada, as is traditional. And the fresh, crunchy haricots verts and pieces of crisp carrot that decorated the plate just didn't belong there. Osso bucco is a wintery stew, not a place for the first crisp vegetables of spring. The orzo beneath the meat was pretty good, in a salty, flavor-saturated way, but I'm grasping at straws.

Polenta, which I saw in different-sized forms at both lunch ($10) and dinner ($13) was more like a timbale than whatever you might expect, a bowl lined with a thin layer of polenta and filled with layers of roasted eggplant, cheese, and such, then finished with a thin layer of polenta. Overwhelming. Like eating sauce alone. Or filling. Isn't that like life? You always think you only like the filling, until you only get the filling. A chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, cheese, and spinach ($15) just--I don't know how else to put it--had me looking about for the band and the wedding party.

The appetizers that ran up to the meal all seemed the same: Enormous, sharing-size portions you could have put together in about eight minutes at Lunds. Crostini ($8.50) were oil-rubbed toasts served with hummus, tapenade, caperberries, and olives. A terrine of wild mushrooms ($8.50) wasn't either; it was a pile of too-herbal, chopped-mushroom dip, and another little mound, strangely, of cranberry sauce, croutons, caperberries, and olives. An antipasto plate ($8.50) was a mammoth ten-inch-wide mountain of lentil salad crowned with four bundles of prosciutto-wrapped grilled fennel, caperberries, and olives. I couldn't get too excited about the salads. Bagged mesclun with julienne carrots and spiced maple pecans ($5) just seemed terribly common.

At the same time, I can see how this very same enormous appetizer and good-enough entrée is going to be many couples' favorite date night: Put a bottle of highly structured, elegant Qupé syrah on the table ($28), that antipasto, some cheese ($8 for three pieces), a couple of baskets of bread, maybe salads and dessert, and your whole night, with sitter, will come in on the right side of $100.

Which is to say nothing of the utterly pretty, brightly colored glazed walls, various arches that separate rooms, playful, low-slung banquettes, and sense of polish that make n e thyme feel like a destination. Lots of other little touches are done just right: good coffee at brunch, fresh bread in the baskets at meals, servers who know what they're doing, a kitchen that gets the food out in a timely manner. I mean, all that stuff is hard to do, and shouldn't be underestimated. Even though I know this comes off as damning with faint praise.

The wine list is almost reason enough to go: four dozen bottles, priced $16 to $59. Most are around $30 and are generally priced a few dollars less than twice retail--very reasonable. Glasses run $4 to $7.50; there's also a $10 corkage fee if you're bringing your own wine. The list is global, with a bit of weight toward French whites and California reds, though what's most interesting about it is its grab-bag approach to the whole wide world: Austrian grüner veltliner, Spanish albariño, Oregon viognier, various reds from up and down Italy and the West Coast.

There was a time, back in the dark ages of last year, I think, when a list this wide-ranging would have been big news. But it seems like the tide is rising and lifting all boats so quickly these days that even with a list this good, in a room this pretty, the restaurant is just filling out the good side of the bell curve, and nothing you'd travel more than oh, let's say, 15 blocks for.

I guess that's not the worst thing that could happen. Is this already the big story for 2002? It seems like the restaurant story in 2001 was: Well-capitalized, ambitious locals swing for fences and...oh, dear (Red Fish Blue, Glockenspiel, Conga, etc.). In 2002 I feel like the story already is: B+ restaurants swarm about, handily fill holes in dining scene (Dish, Marimar, n e thyme, etc.). I guess we'll see. But everybody, be on the lookout for the following establishments: Shear-ly Better Than 1985; Common Grounds of Crème Brûlée, Mesclun, and Polenta; and N E Body Complaining About It, Such as Yours Truly, Can Suck an Egg.

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