168 Avenue B
New York, NY 10009
(212) 677-4787

My youth back in the 1980s was spent just a skidge north of Alphabet City. And during that youth, Alphabet City was verboten. There weren’t too many places my parents feared I tread (well... maybe there were), but our neighbor to the south made it onto the list. In fact the only time I can recall ever going there before college was to get sneakers at some discount shoe store near Tompkins Square Park.

Over time… actually, a really short time, Alphabet City became this bustling gastronomic hub. It didn't become a place where celebrity chefs would set up shop and mug their patrons with $300-a-plate sushi, but rather became almost a center of affordable food. And by "affordable". I don't mean Burger Kings and Chilis. I mean regular restaurants with chefs whose menu wasn't approved by a focus group. Clubs and bars and restaurants have become so plentiful that nowadays if you’re walking down one of the avenues and trip, you’re liable to smack your head on a bistro table.

Home now to hipsters and artists and college students, Alphabet City is actually a place yellow cabs will go trolling for customers. I remember when they would actually kick you out of their cab if you wanted to go there at night. Times change. In fact, they change so much that the old residents who endured the litter of crack vials, gangs, and destitution were the subject of a documentary on PBS a few years ago that was critical of the neighborhood’s gentrification and the shift from the way it was to the way it has become.

But I like it this way.

(And hey, if you really crave slumminess, you can still find plenty of decrepitude between the avenues where the gentrification takes longer to get to.)

At only a handful of years old, 26 Seats is one of the newbies to the neighborhood. The name
"26 Seats" is not artistic. Like "Automobile Magazine", it’s self descriptive. This is less a restaurant where you bring your friends to have a good ol' time than where you might go when you wanted a nice, dark, sorta romantic setting. I picked it because of the name, though. Hey, I'm just being honest.

Hottydoc arrived before I did but they gave her a nice little table by the wall where no one would squeeze past us, coats and bags akimbo. Points! Very little is more aggravating than being forced to stand in the doorway of the restaurant for 20 minutes because your friends haven't shown up yet and the restaurant won't give you a table unless your whole party's there. So kudos to 26 Seats for giving Hottydoc the table. Additionally, of course, I give Hottydoc points for beating me to the restaurant. ... maybe I should re-name her.

The wine list at 26 Seats is a pretty small one. There are only a handful of wines and only a handful within that handful available by the glass. But none of the bottles get very expensive. They average, if I can remember, somewhere between $25 and $35 per bottle, with the most expensive one going for maybe $50 or $60. Anyway, we just ordered a couple glasses of something white. She picked it out. I said, "make that two" and forgot to jot it down.

Hottydoc doesn't like to order appetizers, so she didn't. Normally, I'd follow suit so I wouldn't feel guilty. But I couldn't help it. Escargot. Escargot a la Creme D'ail, to be precise. Normally escargot is served soaking in lava-hot garlic butter in an oddly shaped dish specifically made for escargot. Each snail gets its own cozy little porcelain pocket. 26 Seats' escargot comes, however, inside a copper little pot with a pastry-puff crust on top. Inside the pot the escargot sit in a stew of vegetable cream sauce. Different, but very good. Hottydoc liked it, but felt that the sauce overwhelmed the flavor of the escargot itself.

The entrees we ordered were the Truite Meniere for Hottydoc, a seared brook trout with lemon butter and saffron rice, and the Magret de Canard, a duck breast with mashed sweet potato and mixed greens under a cherry sauce. The trout was great. Easily the best I've had in a very long time. Very light (watch the bones) and perfectly cooked. The duck was very good, too, but I think Hottydoc liked it more than I did. It isn't that it was bad by any stretch, but it seemed a bit on the tough side. And although I know that duck is a very fatty bird, a bit less fat would have been appreciated.

For dessert we shared a Creme Brulee, which I always love. And still do. Creme brulees are like escargot for me. If I see it on the menu, I need one. Just after college I even bought one of those kits that come with their own butane torch so you can make your own. I love cooking and I figured that if I could top off a candle-lit romantic dinner with a fresh creme brulee, I'd be charming the skirts off girls like nobody's business. I think I used it three times. Once to test it, once for a friend, and once for my mom. I don't think I need to elaborate further on the success of my creme-brulee-skirt plan.

Our meal, which included a shared appetizer, two entrees, a shared dessert, and a glass of wine each (plus tax and tip) came to just over $70. When you go, not if, you should know that the only credit card 26 Seats takes is American Express. AmEx or cash. So don't leave home without it. Or bring your dish gloves.

Update 10/22/07:
Gnome went with some friends the other night and told me how wonderful she thought 26 Seats was. So far today, she's thanked me three times for recommending it. She odered the Poulet Moutarde, a balsamic chicken breast with a potato pave in a ginger sauterne mustard. She tells me that it was one of the most tender pieces of chicken she'd ever had. As for the atmosphere, it was so romantic, she tells me, that the two friends she went there with hooked up after dinner and she left to go puke.

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