A Soho Girl's Eatery

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    Soho Girls

    Prune 54 E. 1st St. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.), 677-6221 Back to the closet. It's a hopeless campaign. She invariably leaves the house looking nearly the same. Black stretch pants; twinset; a shirt of some kind, snug; her cool boots; her sleek coat, her scarf; her hat. Her bag, one of half a dozen. Flip off Beck. Birth control pill. Brace for the day.

    She's the Soho Girl. She looks the part. Her futon is unmade, her dishes unwashed, her eyeglasses unconventional.

    She's a particular preoccupation of mine.

    Now, I'm not talking about fashionably sheathed genetic mutants?the skyscraping gyno-troopers who mob the thoroughfares bordered to the north by Bleecker and the south by Canal, and to the east and west by rivers (their stomping ground widens as the years pass by), these days mercilessly frothed by harsh frozen zephyrs. They are what they are: daunting, formidable, icy, tall. What their private lives are really like holds very little interest to me. The private lives of zoo animals are more enticing. How can you be meaningfully attracted to something you can't even conceive of talking to?

    So screw them. It's the authentic Soho Girl who intrigues me, the plucky striver, a character out of a Marge Piercy novel. (Not a Tama Janowitz novel.) She is either not rich or not very rich. She lives, unavoidably, in the East Village. (A cruel paradox: she can't actually afford to live in Soho.) If she skips coffee and breakfast, she waits on line at Olive's with a dozen others who share her station, her akimbo finances, her aspirations, her moods and wants and needs. She buys a nonfat latte and a muffin with vegetables in it. She goes to the gym four times each week. She has enjoyed approximately five boyfriends in the past four years. If she's a lesbian, it's not obvious. She loves sushi, vodka and shoes. She gets her hair cut at Valerie's. Her underwear is often unmatched.

    And now she has a restaurant that's all about her. It's Prune, open since October over on E. 1st St., right down the way from Chez Es Saada. Prune: the restaurant for women. For women in their mid-20s to their early 30s and with the usual range of young-woman jobs. Gallery jobs and museum jobs and publishing jobs and design-firm jobs and architecture-firm jobs and magazine jobs. Possibly something on the fringes of the dot-com universe. (But possibly not). Jobs that accentuate the minor cult of ferocious cute that this type of young woman has cultivated, jobs in offices that sharply background the haircuts and the clothes and the cool boots.

    What a girl like this wants, once the day is done and the deluge of bullshit from some older, overbearing, possibly monstrous, often female boss has been gracefully absorbed (because it's got to be absorbed; the job is part of the total package, and defiance or surrender or agitation would ruin the whole glorious New York Downtown daydream), is simply to get together with a pack of her coconspirators and do what they all aggressively fantasize about doing when they're not fantasizing about shoes or money or their own apartments.


    And I don't mean Japanese here. I mean honest food. Food that would make many a 27-year-old woman, were she not in the supportive company of her ad-hoc professional sorority, blanche in disgust at its grotesque caloric load, its cellulite-layering implications, its accumulated threat of belly-swelling gunk.

    Prune delivers this food?food that the vomitrixes who run the women's magazines would cast out of town, given a chance?and does so with a grace (and an impressive level of accomplishment in the kitchen, not to mention reasonable prices) I haven't experienced at many other restaurants. Prune has genuinely created something on its grimy East Village strip. A refuge, a realm of solace. A clean and reassuring enclave governed by soft rules and shared thrills and the perpetual promise of bonding.

    If you've read this far, you might have detected what would by some be labeled a smug misogyny?a mean superiority, at least?in my observations on the manners and psychology and protocols of the young women I'm concerned with. To which I respond: Fuck off. Everyone knows the woods these days are thick to their bulging upper boughs with them. Take a goddamn walk down Prince St. at lunchtime?or better yet, at about 9:55 a.m.?on a Tuesday and tell me I've made all this up, that I've authored a contemptible screed against a population that doesn't exist. Open your eyes. They rove the asphalt for all to see.

    As for the misogyny: Again, fuck off. I love this woman. She is my very favorite type of New Yorker. It is with curtailed Whitmanesque vigor that I belt out her praises, with due complexity that I undertake to explain her trials, and with an eye toward the pleasures of manless covenry that I will now proceed to gush over the joys of her restaurant: Prune.

    First off, you need to understand that Prune has one screwy-ass menu. It's almost as if, despite all evidence to the contrary, it doesn't entirely want to be the restaurant for women. For instance, you can order suckling pig at Prune. During my dinner, with my ambivalent female companion (who clued me in to Prune in the first place, and who's not sure being a Soho Girl is worth it), I was framed by a quintet of the women for whom Prune exists and could imagine none of these iVillage or Oxygen or Estronet demographic templates taking a shot at the suckling pig. This entree, I theorized, is for the fellas, the boyfriends (I guess) who will arrive with their girlfriends at a later seating (we ate at 7). A tableful of slender young women with fresh manicures laying into a delicate roasted piglet and going all swoony over its crackling skin? Unlikely. The short ribs, another butch selection, stood a better chance. But only an outside better chance. Ditto the steak.

    It's entirely a la carte, the Prune menu, and it's as eclectic, as ambi-regional and cross-cultural as the restaurant's design, which suggested to me a sort of fried green Provence, a hillbillette bistro. Paint peeling from the walls, mirrors, rickety tables, the flicker of small votives, sallow globe fixtures hung from the ceiling and offering a wan light tinged with integrity, mismatched flatware and glasses. (No liquor license yet at Prune, so I brought along a bottle of the marvelous '98 Hitching Post pinot noir from Santa Barbara county, and then proceeded to drink it from a near-shotglass, six or seven pours to get through my half of the bottle.) There's a curvaceous bench along one wall, an innocuous bar adorned at one end with long quince branches and, in the large bathroom, a Lancome makeup bag tucked on a high shelf. After eating spicy Indian flatbreads for a few minutes (Prune, being a restaurant for women, is anti-bread), I ordered the roasted sea bass, my companion the grilled "heads-on" shrimp with anchovy butter. We started with a four-dollar bagna cauda, an ample plank of raw fennel, red cabbage, pear tomatoes and radishes, accompanied by an anchovy dipping sauce. A neat variation on salad, but it pointed up a...problem? No, more an issue with Prune's culinary ideology: portion sizes. I've never eaten so much fennel in one sitting as I did of the bagna cauda at Prune. The radishes went on and on (the gritty greens were left on and, for my money, they could have been washed less rustically). A mountain of fiber. The fennel didn't match very well, either, with the dipping sauce. Fennel is a tough customer, the licorice flavor difficult to cut through or complement when the vegetable is uncooked.

    On to the main courses, which I expected to be similarly huge. My sea bass, however, floating atop a berbere broth greened by leeks and peas, arrived in an Orientally demure bowl. The heads-on shrimp, and only two of them?though they were enormous and as rich as junior lobsters?were presented with anchovy butter on a wide charger. Next to us, a female twosome toasted each other with Veuve Clicquot and wrestled with a trough of salad sufficient to enhance the digestion of a bull elephant. Every time I looked over, they were chewing.

    Prune offers a range of sides, Southern style, instead of burdening the entrees or fouling the esthetics of the presentation. We went for the potatoes three-ways (a fanned-out circular galette, a pair of crushed tubers flecked with parsley and a humbly roasted potato half), then fought over the final morsels. There's also a bunch of tapas-style items, making the whole business of selecting appetizers a slog.

    My feeling is that this disorganized diversity won't last. It's too daunting to puzzle out the menu. Trial and error, plus the addition of some specials, ought to winnow down the complexity and provide a menu more akin to Home's: repetitive, but reliable. Plainspoken. Efficient.

    Until that time, however, composing a wine list that will work with this many food options is going to be a real challenge. Big, buttery, very expensive chardonnays make sense, but I doubt that Prune will want to list wines at the markups the banner chardonnays require. I would go with Loire whites and rieslings, and limit the reds to downmarket Bordeaux, with maybe some California zinfandels and Australian shiraz thrown in for variety, along with a few marquee pinot noirs (and at all costs avoid Italian wines). But I'll wager if I go back in a month or two, I'll find a host of mid-priced California reds and whites, the cheap cabernet sauvignons too rough, the merlots thin and forgettable, the chardonnay overoaked to mask the inferiority of the grapes. We'll see. Personally, I think Prune's prices are low enough (entrees run between ten and 21 dollars) to merit some daring with the wine list, everything in the $25 to $60 range, with a flight of by-the-glass selections to give patrons with lighter wallets something to drink.

    Dessert. We decide on a strange confection: a pithivier, puff-pastry injected with ground pistachios and sugar, sharing plate space with blackberries and homemade buttermilk ice cream. An extremely feminine dessert, I concluded, and good, if chewier than I usually like my desserts. Prune needs to put an honorable slice of apple pie on there. And resist serving ice cream after Labor Day, which just should not be done. (What compels New Yorkers to eat ice cream year-round, even when it's minus-10 with the windchill out on the howling corridors of 2nd Ave.? Gluttony? An irrational need for sweet milky comfort? Insolence?)

    Comforting, better-than-average food slung from the narrow open kitchen into a charmed setting. But more important, there's the scene: All around me, well-coifed young women huddled in fragrant confederacy. Crypto-lesbian, in a magnanimous sort of way, eavesdroppy, flirtatious. Genially pornographic, and, for a guy, somewhat like wandering invisible into the ladies' room right after the end of a movie. Illicit. Secrets swirling in the air.

    My companion and I linger over coffee, speculating on its origins (Peet's?). There's a cheerful sight on the table, one not matched at many other ostensibly more fabulous establishments: cubed sugar. Life hunches through the Arctic darkness outside, but inside the girls lean in close and embroider confidences, reveal anxieties, report the day's collection of tiny defeats, tawdry expectations, constrained triumphs. They wind their scarves back around their necks, tug hats down over dainty ears, exit the soothing refuge and reenter the coarse progress of rude reality. A futon freshly spread with flannel sheets waits at the top of a five-story walkup. Quick cosmetic ablutions to perform before bed. Phone messages. Then sleep.

    Soho isn't going anywhere, and not a single one of these determined women is ready to admit that it's time to give up. Not yet. Not tonight. Not while they still have Prune.