Shrouded like a strip joint behind one-way mirrored glass, Kenmare seems at first glance to be yet another private club pretending to be a restaurant, as impenetrable as Minetta Tavern or the Waverly Inn. The word from management, however, is that the hot spot—owned by Nur Khan of Rose Bar and DJ Paul Sevigny—welcomes all comers. Simply pick up the phone or walk in off the street. Friends of the house don’t get special treatment. In fact, drop-in seats are reserved every night for plain old neighborhood folk. And if you believe that, I can hook you up with a Nigerian prince handing out cash on the Internet.
Unlike Graydon Carter’s hermetic canteen, the restaurant serves food that’s worth some hoop-jumping. Chef Joey Campanaro’s simple, Italian-accented fare comes reasonably priced and generously portioned, the last things you’d expect from a buzzy space with sultry lighting, pink stucco walls and the same eclectic mix of scruffy rockers, uptown celebutantes and insomniac lotharios who once prowled Sevigny’s Beatrice Inn (late night they migrate downstairs to the louche basement bar).
In spite of the restaurant’s open-door claims, rubes who call for a table might be dissuaded from giving the chef’s food a shot when they end up in an exchange like this:
“Hello, I’d like a reservation for Tuesday.”
“Let’s see, we have 6:30 or 11.”
“Is there any night when you might have a prime-time table available?”
“For the foreseeable future?”
Take heart; even if you’re not on an early-bird schedule, you might have a chance with a walk-in—there are small drop-in tables up front near the bar—assuming you work up the gumption to try. Though the restaurant isn’t so far employing a sidewalk ape with a clipboard, entry is still pretty daunting. A front door as heavy as a 15th-century chateau’s gives way to an impeccably dressed gentleman eyeing you up and down at the host stand.
The hospitality inside is much more inviting (a follow-up reservation is comparably easy to score at the end of a meal). The waitstaff are thoughtful, well-informed and attentive.
While there were a fair number of Campanaro groupies on hand during my visits, many air-kissing scenesters seemed like they’d be perfectly happy with disco snacks. The chef obliges them with the meatball sliders he made famous across town at the Little Owl—delicious handfuls of beef, pork and veal topped with sharp pecorino (offered here at the owners’ insistence)—and with beautifully crispy cheddar-topped fries with thick giblet gravy. But those dishes are merely a tease when compared with the full dinner menu.
A master of insouciant hominess, Campanaro packs his plates with big, accessible flavors, trademark combinations that might have been scientifically engineered to fire off our craving receptors. A simple bowl of broccoli soup, enriched with butter and beer, is as silky as an ermine coat—and as instantly warming. There’s a symphonic interplay of textures and flavors in a rustic jumble of endives, asparagus, toasted pecans, bread crumbs and melted fontina—and in the gumdrop gnocchi with crispy escarole and spoon-tender short ribs.
The food here, in significant disconnect from the setting, is remarkably free of pretense—and of regard for size-zero appetites. Even fish—a flaky hunk of seared halibut—comes gloriously bathed in butter and cream. A fried pounded veal cutlet—a delicious cross between a milanese and tonkatsu—isn’t just coated in panko, but also topped with an intense buttery veal jus. Meaty lamb T-bones in a brawny marinade of honey, hot chilies and curry, recline on an almond-flecked salad that hides a generous layer of Parmesan-laden orzo.
While none of this food is terribly groundbreaking, it’s got the everyday appeal of great home cooking—and oddly, considering the venue, perfect for cultivating regulars.
Desserts too—warm, cakeybanana beignets; bubbling rhubarb-berry crisp topped with buttery streusel—have an endearing domestic quality. While Campanaro’s populist sensibility makes perfect sense in the cozy West Village, here in the new epicenter of nocturnal exclusion, it’s a pretty strange fit.
Drink this: A sassetto sangiovese from Tuscany ($37) is a surprisingly reasonable flavor bomb of tart-cherry tannins.
Eat this: Broccoli-beer soup, asparagus gratin, lamb T-bones, crunchy veal cutlet, rhubarb-berry crisp
Sit here: The front bar, surrounded by squat tables, is set up to accommodate drop-in diners. Although a prime-time slot in the dining room is hard to come by, the seating there is certainly less cramped.
Conversation piece: Sevigny has been insisting all along that the subterranean lounge is not, in fact, the second coming of his Beatrice Inn, but all indications say otherwise. Like that defunct West Village hot spot, the bar at Kenmare, which recently secured its 4am license (and hired off-duty models and rockers as staff), gets going only around midnight.
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