- Walter Novak
- Grilled swordfish on couscous (foreground), or a savory falafel? Decisions, decisions.
But keep your shirt on, big guy. It's only 6, and we're here for dinner, not just the sweet endings: Dancing "cheek to cheek" will have to wait. As luck would have it, the dishes coming out of executive chef Brian Kleve's tiny kitchen are scintillating enough -- or nearly so -- to keep your focus on regions above the collarbone, at least for the time being.
Besides, it's not like the crew of conscientious dining-room staffers are going to taunt you by running around in their skivvies tonight. Just ask the gregarious chef if he plans to peel off his jacket in honor of the occasion. "Did you ever fry bacon without a shirt on?" says Kleve, who honed his chops during an 18-month run as executive sous-chef at Giovanna's. "It isn't the kind of mistake you make twice."
Of course, after variously grazing, nibbling, and noshing our way through much of Kleve's small but tantalizing bistro menu -- featuring items like hand-formed burgers, homemade soups, and what may be the very best twice-fried, Belgian-style "frites" in the city -- we have to believe he's the kind of guy who doesn't make any mistake too often. In fact, other than some overcooked, sort-of-rubbery diver's scallops, we didn't find much that wasn't on target, in terms of preparation. Then factor in Kleve's penchant for fresh ingredients, his "made from scratch" mentality, and his sure-handed use of salt, pepper, herbs, and spices, and what emerges is simple food that sizzles with high-octane flavor.
But first, a brief history. A contemporary take on the 1950s supper club, Touch originally opened in 2000, with a rotating retinue of DJs, live music, and dancing, along with an uneven dinner menu that sometimes seemed like an afterthought. Despite some first-rate parties and popular events, the spot shut down in 2004 and remained closed for nearly 18 months. Finally, it relaunched in September with a new owner (club vet Rob Ivanov), the same hip music-and-dance scene, and a renewed dedication to serving consistently first-rate food.
Kleve's full menu took effect in December, and by all measures it's a winner, filled with multicultural dishes, robust flavors, and plenty of labor-intensive lagniappes, such as homemade versions of ketchup, roasted-garlic aïoli, and fried-to-order potato chips. Sure, this type of careful homemade goodness is nothing you wouldn't expect to find in any first-rate restaurant in the city. But to come across it here, in a young, urbane dance club, where an interest in panty parties would be expected to trump gourmet grub at any turn? It's a real shocker, like stumbling across a cache of truffles on your tree lawn.
It doesn't hurt that portions are generous and prices are easy on the budget. Take, for example, Kleve's matzo-ball soup, made from his mother's own recipe. Four bucks scores you a bowl almost as deep as it is wide, filled to the brim with an intense golden chicken broth and three dense yet meltingly tender matzo balls; in terms of sheer flavor, this soup makes the pale versions served in many local delis and diners seem like bath water.
Tomato bisque is a good bet too, with a sleek richness that comes from a touch of real cream, not from gloppy thickeners or starches. The bisque's playful yin-yang of sweet-tart flavors gets a savory boost from a bit of basil pesto garnish, floating on a slim crostini raft.
With a nod to the classic nursery din-din, Kleve pairs the bisque with a grilled Swiss cheese sandwich and a mound of sheer, warm potato chips. Alternatively, do as we did, and order the bisque with one of the ample "winter house salads," a toss of satiny spinach, crimson cubes of roasted beets, toasted pecans, and fat crumbs of creamy goat cheese, dressed in just the right amount of precisely balanced, housemade pomegranate vinaigrette.
Kleve's eagerness to nail the details shows up even in something as commonplace as baked macaroni and cheese, which he dresses up with peas, prosciutto, and a shellacking of sheer béchamel, enriched with egg yolks and fontina cheese. Everything about this dish is just right. The pasta shells? Firm and fit. The sauce? Intense but light-textured. And the flavor notes? Graceful as all get-out.
If the food quality is a surprise, no less so are the room's upscale appointments, including cloth napkins; substantial, streamlined flatware; and delicate porcelain plates and bowls, in an array of geometric shapes and sizes. Salt and pepper are absent from the tabletops (and we hardly missed them), but little oil lamps in ribbed glass holders contribute a dash of good taste. And an eclectic soundtrack of house, trance, and dance music fills the space with high-energy vibrations. (As we noted way back in 2000, though, the unisex restrooms still could use some sprucing up.)
To drink, you'll find the usual cocktails and spirits (including some top-shelf tequilas), a small but serviceable list of moderately priced wines, and a collection of nearly four dozen bottled beers, both domestic and imported, including the trendy (like Blue Moon, Chimay, and Stella Artois) and the rare (including Canada's La Fin du Monde and Serbia-Montenegro's Niksicso), each served in its own specialty glassware.
Poured into the traditional chalice-shaped snifter, the Chimay ($8, $7 during happy hour, from 5 to 8 p.m.) pairs up particularly well with a thick, well-seasoned burger, goosed with salt, pepper, rosemary, sage, and thyme, and topped with shredded asiago and bits of prosciutto. On the side, translucent homemade chips dissolve on the tongue like sugar. Even better are the Belgian fries -- freshly sliced and twice-fried, once at 320 and a second time, for added crispness, at 370; creamy homemade aïoli, for dipping, makes a sassy alternative to the usual red stuff.
Other good bets include the tender, bone-in pork chop, sauced with black mission-fig chutney, and served with herb-scented, Yukon Gold smashed potatoes; a pair of giant empañadas, stuffed with chorizo, roasted corn salsa, and manchego cheese; and an out-of-the-ordinary take on fried falafel patties, featuring a crisp crust, an unusually moist interior, and a chorus of unexpectedly savory flavors derived from a high-test combo of cumin, coriander, cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, green onion, and a touch of cayenne pepper.
For dessert, Kleve says he often imports sweets from the nearby West Side Market; sadly, though, the cupboard was bare on the nights we dropped by. Still, big mugs of freshly brewed coffee, served with real cream presented in a little white pitcher, put a satisfied smile on our faces.
If, on the other hand, you want something to grin about, come back on March 2, for the next meeting of the Only Undies Club; just be sure not to drizzle aïoli on your boxers.