Bobo + Freemans

Two hipster hangs, two new chefs, one worth the visit.

Rabbit roulade with brussels sprouts, apples and mushrooms

Rabbit roulade with brussels sprouts, apples and mushrooms Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>0/5

Bobo, 181 W 10th St at Seventh Ave South (212-488-2626). Subway: A, C, E, B, D, F, V to W 4th St; 1 to Christopher St--Sheridan Sq. Mon--Wed 6--11pm; Thu, Fri 6pm--midnight; Sat, Sun noon--midnight. Average main course: $27.

Freemans, Freeman Alley off Rivington St between Bowery and Chrystie Sts (212-420-0012). Subway: F, V to Lower East Side--Second Ave. Daily 11am--4pm, 6--11:30pm. Average main course: $21.

Since opening four years ago to rapturous reception at the end of an alley, Freemans has developed into a full-blown lifestyle brand, including its own clothing line, barbershop and backwoods aesthetic. The restaurant that launched a thousand scruffy beards struck all the right chords—and set the standard by which every clandestine hot spot is judged. Long after its 15 minutes should’ve elapsed, the place is more mobbed than Pastis.

If Freemans has the natural charisma stars are born with, Bobo in the West Village is the understudy trying to keep up. For the past year, management has struggled to translate some of that alleyway magic to their bi-level brownstone. On paper, that should’ve come easy. The restaurant has a charming frontman—owner Carlos Suarez—and a built-in clientele of fashion waifs and dandies. But there’s always been something smug about the place—the mission statement on the menu, for instance. And then there’s the cost. For a restaurant that set its sights on becoming a neighborhood clubhouse, the high prices just don’t add up—particularly given the modest bistro fare coming out of the kitchen.

A few months back, both restaurants swapped out their chefs. At Freemans, where business was booming, the change barely registered. At the shakier Bobo, it became an opportunity for generating a new round of buzz. Though the food at both has never been the main draw, Suarez seems desperate to land a toque who will win over critics (and justify the prices). Patrick Connolly, their third chef, turns out to be the poorest fit yet.

Just in time for the financial crisis, the downstairs bar area has been transformed into Bobo’s new “den,” with a casual menu featuring more fried stuff than a tempura joint. I’m not sure if it was the batter or oil at fault, but the marrow tots, fried pickles and fries (served with goopy rarebit) all had an odd chalky finish. Mussels featured a briny fennel-laced broth that looked and tasted like dirty dishwater, while the burger with onions, leeks and Gruyre, was overcooked.

Upstairs in the main dining room—festooned with old books, photos and knickknacks—is where Connolly (formerly of Radius in Boston) delivers his auteur cuisine. The chef’s bizarre brand of kitchen-sink fusion features some of the most jarring combinations I’ve tried this year. Hot peppers show up in the most unusual places: Raw jalapeo comes draped atop a date in an inauspicious amuse-bouche; red chilies are sprinkled with bacon and greens on a gluey gnocchi starter; and more jalapeos are tossed with cauliflower and spaetzle in a very strange accompaniment to pork belly and loin. Only the desserts, including an indulgent chocolate layer cake with salted caramel frosting and a delicious pear tart with warm almond cream, seem to be on the upswing.

Meanwhile at Freemans, new chef Michael Citarella (Caf Gray) has integrated seamlessly into the well-oiled, if frenetic, machine. Without calling much attention to himself, he’s unveiled a new menu that builds and improves on predecessor Jean Adamson’s already fine work. Though her signature bar snacks remain (there wasn’t even a question of tampering with the cult artichoke dip), Citarella’s hearty additions are even more of a draw. A new quail starter features a tender charred bird atop buttery grits and sweet pepper relish. The chef’s generous rabbit roulade entre features boneless bacon-wrapped bunny with frizzled onions, brussels sprouts, diced apples and mushrooms. His filet mignon is a fine steak—and the priciest entre at $26.

Desserts here—caramel-soaked bananas Foster with vanilla ice cream, toasted carrot-walnut cake—are the sorts of quick and easy afterthoughts you often find in restaurants without a pastry chef. While they won’t win any awards, they do a fine job satisfying cravings for a simple finish—and in delivering a lesson to Bobo on recognizing limitations and capitalizing on strengths.