Gin Lane

Have you ever walked into a place and felt it was doomed? Not because of any one particular flaw, but just because of an overwhelming aura of unease that seems to pervade the physical space. It's the kind of thing you would expect at a location that's changed hands several times in as many years, but oddly, 355 West 14th Street has only had one other tenant in recent memory: the Village Idiot. In that incarnation, the floors were covered with sawdust, and the only way you could make the harsh lighting forgiving and the barmaids attractive was to drink copious amounts of Pabst Blue Ribbon at $2 a can.

Gin Lane retains some of the meat market feel without any of the Village Idiot's self-mocking fun. The cavernous bar area (who knew it was so big!) has been stripped down to exposed red brick and hung with wrought-iron chandeliers. It's mercifully roomy and underoccupied compared to other bars in the area - and this might be reason alone to make a reservation for dinner at Gin Lane. Unfortunately, the food would not be. The intentions here are good - to create a clubby sort of old-school place where you might have found the Rat Pack - but the execution lags. At times the fare reminds me not of clubby food, but club food, i.e., country club food. You're liable to see one ingredient in several incarnations on both sides of the menu, from appetizers to entrees. For instance, tuna tartare becomes tuna steak tartare becomes grilled tuna tenderloin, all on the menu one night as various standard items and specials.

I order the ingredient I like least - some head-on prawns that turn out to be stinky - twice in one meal in a tragic twist of fate. First in the seafood platter, where the plain shrimp is good, the oysters limp and not particularly flavorful, and the clams just plain funny-tasting. Then the prawns pretty much ruin the surf and turf. How can an entire plate taste of stinky prawns? I suspect that the kitchen left the whole thing covered under a heat lamp for a while until the prawn smell infiltrated even the lumpy mashed potatoes. The steak - another raison d'etre at Gin Lane - is cooked as I ordered it, but is nevertheless dull.

An inoffensive "girl food" item, the tuna tartare is basically an avocado tuna roll without the rice. (I doubt Dean Martin's date would have been aware of such a dish.) But the iceberg wedge with apple-smoked bacon and blue cheese dressing nearly saves the day. This is one dish that really does take me back the way it's meant to, back to a swanky steak house of at least 1980s pedigree. The lettuce is perfectly cold and crisp and a nice foil to the blue cheese dressing, which tastes worlds better when made fresh. The fact that the bacon is apple-smoked is noticeable in the overall taste of the dish and presents a conscientious touch you wish the kitchen brought to more of the menu.

My friend and I are at a a loss when we finish our meal. If we venture out into the meatpacking night, we will be swept away by hordes of revelers. So we stay for a nightcap. Though the mixologist here is touted as amazing in the press materials, the couple of expensive cocktails we sample are so sweet I am probably affected more by a sugar high than by the alcohol. As the night progresses, the bar gets more crowded and elbows start to fly, and one of the sticky-sweet drinks goes right down my shirt, a mishap that would have been to much easier to bear were it a $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon. We take that as a signal to leave Gin Lane to the tourists, who seem to have a much higher tolerance for faux-old new New York than those of us who remember the real thing.

Gin Lane
355 West 14th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues