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I ran my hand back and forth under the bar, searching with my fingers for the ubiquitous “purse hook.” Manhattan women love this brilliant little invention that allows them to hang their Fendi or Louis Vuitton bags between their knees at fine establishments everywhere, thereby avoiding taking up precious bar space with their trophy accessories, or having to put their $2000 carryall on the floor. Gasp! I, personally, don’t own a handbag that cost me more than $100 (I prefer vintage or “faux” for a purse since my food obsessions are decidedly new and authentic), but I like to hang my bag under the bar with all the other status-y ones.
“There’s no hook; I already checked,” said Celest, with a look of mild exasperation.
I was confounded; Bar Q is brand new and should be up on this newest trend in civilized bar-going.
Then it hit me, “Ahhh…yes. Lesbian owner…”
Anita Lo, celebrated, hard-core chef/restaurateur, whose signature accessory is a folded, cotton bandana, holding back her short, punky, black hair, is probably without a collection of delicate handbags to worry about…
Bar Q is Lo’s latest offering, following her revered fine-dining establishment, Annisa, and her more recent hit, a casual venture, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. Both are Greenwich Village spots, as is Bar Q, which is on Bleecker St., a stone’s throw from my house. The newest addition to Lo’s Asian-influenced eating empire is meant to occupy a middle ground between the other places. Its sophisticated and minimalist (way minimalist) décor reminds of Annisa, while small plates, a more casual menu, and the word “Bar” in its name, are meant to keep it from seeming overly expensive or precious. Well…
My experience there this weekend showed a lot of hits and misses. And I’m not even really counting the lack of the purse hook. Décor? Cool and yet too cold. Food? Some tasty and some terrible enough to have to be sent back. Service? Charming then condescending. Crowd? Decent, with the exception of the group that kept rudely elbowing me as I tried to eat at the bar.
As for the look, Celest, who claims to love minimalism as an aesthetic, thinks Lo’s take is a bit outdated.
“I don’t know, it’s a little Calvin Klein, circa 1996,” she said. “Too austere—I mean, in a restaurant, shouldn’t lack of color or art on the walls somehow help highlight the food? This is distractingly severe. It looks unfinished and a little unwelcoming,”
Some of the stone and the marble being used in the space are pretty, but what the overly-plain décor highlighted for me was the poor guy who stood all night behind the raw bar with seemingly nothing to do. Poor thing! The restaurant doesn’t serve sushi; why is this guy required to stand there? To plate a couple oysters or pieces of uni when they’re ordered? I never saw him have to cut even one piece of sashimi the whole time I was there. I thought it seemed like torture for him to have to stay there with nothing to do. It increased the “prison” feel of the dining room.
As for the food, we ordered the wrong starter. It had been such a warm, sunshine-y day, the “trio of tartares,” served in chilled, avocado soup sounded like perfection. In fact, it was perfectly inedible. This was particularly disappointing, since the dish was so beautiful to look at: a soft green pond with three types of finely cubed, raw fish floating in its center, all topped with bright, red-orange rowe and delicate shards of crisp radish. At first bite, I knew the soup was way too “fishy;” it didn’t taste at all of avocado, and therefore didn’t compliment the actual tartares in any way. More importantly, the fish wasn’t brightly colored and didn’t taste as fresh as it should have. We both tried every component of the dish and were in complete agreement about the fact that we couldn’t possibly eat it. We asked, politely, that it be sent back, and waited for our next plates.
Thankfully, those were much better. Celest ordered the tea soaked chicken. It was wonderfully moist, with flavorful, crisp skin and came stuffed with sticky rice and Chinese sausage. It was served with sautéed chives, over which we both went nuts. Salty with great spring onion flavor, they were prepared as a fully-fledged vegetable course rather than garnish. A revelation! I’ve already bought a bunch from the market that I plan on experimenting with this week. However, the rice was disappointingly gelatinous, so we avoided. My plate of pork belly, kimchee and steamed buns was messy but fun to eat (I love “assembly” dishes!), but top prize for this meal has to go to a surprisingly good concoction we ordered as a side dish: garlic fried milk. That’s right, fried milk!
Our boyish bartender/ waitress described this dish: “The milk gets infused with garlic. Then some cornstarch is added to make it thick and it’s deep-fried. So it’s crisp on the outside and kind of custardy in the center.”
I love tasting something I’ve never encountered before and this definitely fit that bill. I ooed and awed over the fried milk, it’s extraordinary texture a perfect contrast of crunch and cream. Think deep-fried tofu, but instead of a rubber soy center, imagine oozing cream delicately infused with garlic. And I’m not the only one raving. Even The Times has taken notice of the fried milk tradition…and I think Chef Lo is to thank for that.
Overall, the food was not good enough to entice me back to Bar Q soon. But the cocktails will definitely get me through the door, especially the margarita. Celest was hesitant to order one, since we’re headed to Texas this week, where we plan on downing a bunch of real-deal Austin/ Dallas/ San Antonio versions of the official state cocktail, but after she tasted mine, she was sold. This is not a traditional margarita, but it’s the best unconventional version I’ve ever had, tasting of the unusual kefir lime and good tequila—nothing else—and rimmed in spicy, chili salt. On the rocks, it rocks.