Cafe Cluny

Much ado has been made of the female pedigree of Cafe Cluny, which is owned by Lynn Wagenknecht. She's the ex-wife of Keith McNally! She's trading in on his contacts! She has pictures of celebrities up on the walls! She expects people to come to her cool new West Village restaurant just because of who she is! Can you imagine? It's unheard of!

You'd think that in this city of 18,696 restaurants, this was the only one started up and owned by a woman. Oh wait - that's nearly true. (R.I.P. restaurant Dona - we loved you, and your truffled gnudi too.) Many critics seem to be completely flabbergasted by this woman who dared start a restaurant without her husband. Any minute now, a movie extra is going to pop up behind her and say, I told you, Miss Scarlett, don't be ridin' through that shanty town on that buggy by yourself... It's dangerous!

Boy, that Wagenknecht sure is uppity.

The interior of Cafe Cluny is unapologetically feminine. Botanical prints abound, but they are more in the stylish John Derian/Fornasetti vein than the girly Shabby Chic one. The decor celebrates the subversive, from taxidermied birds and fish to a giant wooden bug lurking on the ceiling. The press descriptions of the restaurant's pointed femininity have become self-fulfilling prophecies: on the nights I was there, the place was populated mainly by women and the men who love their shoes. Attention straight men of the West Village: proceed immediately to Cafe Cluny. You'll be shooting fish in a barrel.

Several people I know are crazy about the food at Cafe Cluny. I'm not sure why. Wagenknecht does have the Odeon owner's gift for anticipating just what customers want: tuna tartare, steak, short ribs, addictive French fries. But even casual dining in New York has undergone a sea change. As much as critics like to kvetch (as in Bruni's well-deserved slap "You May Kiss the Chef's Napkin Ring") about the needless copy on menus telling you everything from which field your greens are from to what the pig ate for breakfast that morning*, many of us can now tell the difference between very fresh and local ingredients and ingredients that are not so. Don't get me wrong: it's not that the quality of the ingredients at Cafe Cluny is terrible. The tuna tartare is dressed perfectly with mustard oil and cilantro, but the tuna itself doesn't taste like much. And the frisee in the frisee salad (my handy bistro barometer) just hides under the lardons and egg without really adding anything but texture.

The short ribs were melt-in-your-mouth good. But this very cheap cut of meat was priced at $28. Sure, there was some foie gras thrown in there for good measure. But $28? The steak - hanger, another not-so-ritzy cut - was $25 and cooked medium-rare on the inside, as I ordered it, but charred to the point of complete carbonization on the outside. And it was a faux steak-frites! They wouldn't give me fries with that - not unless I ordered them separately for $8. I loved the pan-roasted scallop special with pureed butternut squash and oxtail ragu. Loved it, that is, until I realized that two scallops set me back $27, and then I felt gypped. The place reminds me more of Village restaurant than Odeon or Balthazaar. So why aren't the prices more in line?

In this too, Wagenknecht is the savvy business owner, who probably does not want to go the way of Grange Hall (sob). We diners want fresh, local ingredients. We want a cool interior. We want a lovely, romantic location in the West Village, one of the most expensive zip codes in New York. We want low prices. We want instant access. New Yorkers want everything our way. And for the most part recently, we've gotten it, and in the process we've gotten awfully spoiled.

At least Cafe Cluny goes a long way in gratifying some of these wishes. It's a nice neighborhood restaurant full of taxidermied creatures, a place where you can see some of your friendly West Village neighbors like John Waters. It was so apropos to see him just as I was taking all these pictures of fashion week, because he wrote a few of my favorite lines on fashion in Serial Mom. Here's the final scene, cribbed from IMDB:

Patty Hearst is talking on a payphone when Kathleen Turner comes up behind her and grabs the phone from her.

Kathleen Turner: You can't wear white after Labor Day!

Patty Hearst: That's not true anymore.

Kathleen Turner: Yes it is! Didn't your mother tell you?
[She whacks her in the face with the phone]

Patty Hearst: No! Please! Fashion has changed!

Kathleen Turner: No... It hasn't.
[She bludgeons Patty Hearst to death with payphone.]

Cut to Patty Hearst's white high heel, now covered in blood and gore.

See? What's so threatening about a woman in a position of power?

Cafe Cluny
284 West 12th Street at West 4th Street

* The apex of this trend was a note at the bottom of the Waverly's preview menu saying "All drinking and cooking water is reverse osmosis." It made one wonder why, exactly, it was necessary for the Waverly Inn to reverse-osmose the water coming out of the inn's pipes, which presumably do not originate in Mexico.


c said...

this post... incredible. so smart!!! only one problem: I am supposed to go to the cluny next week. help! where to take my dear husband for his birthday and eschew the cluny?

bellastraniera said...

thanks c - bottom line: I would still go to Cafe Cluny for dinner, esp a romantic/celebratory one. Just don't expect to be totally wowed by the food. Otherwise, the Waverly Inn and Beatrice Inn are right around the corner... haven't eaten at Beatrice yet