Old Leshko's, New Leshko's in the East Village

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53


    Leshko's 111 Ave. A (7th St.), 777-2111 But the establishment's reconfiguration has me thinking about the old Leshko's. Like, say, Barry Goldwater, that gnarly establishment's the more lovable the more it's receded into history.

    Actually, the old Leshko's was a phenomenon: a restaurant that competed with 2nd Ave.'s Kiev Restaurant for a sort of abysmal primacy among Eastern European diners, and won more often than it lost. To eat at the old Leshko's was to gamble with destiny. Dining was an extreme experience there, a flirtation with salmonella and other varieties of culinary danger. Years ago I patronized Leshko's regularly for a while, just for the convenience of it?I worked in the area, and besides, Leshko's was located in the heart of what was then a postcollegiate bohemia, slightly before Williamsburg assumed that title. I remember the presence in one of the restaurant's clammy, pungent bathrooms?the one that's located a couple of steps westward of the other?of a stout and knobby tree branch, 4 or 5 feet long, smooth and shined with the friction of many hands, propped in the interstice between the wheezing, sweat-beaded toilet and the dry-rotting wall. That stick's presence mystified me until, after a half-dozen visits to the facility, it occurred to me that it was a simple rustic concession to the toilet's vagaries. Beautiful: Homeless guys and panicked cabbies who'd found their guts voided in a hurry by three cups of acidic coffee and a plate of Leshko's brutal, palsied, fiberless, lard-fried griddlecakes, must have used the stick to unclog the plumbing, ramming the thing deep into the sputtering bowl's black depths until the rising waters stabilized?at which point the traumatized amateur plumbers could stagger dry-heaving back into the restaurant, snatch their bill off their greasy table, pay up at the register and get the hell out of Dodge before one of the consumptives who worked behind the counter emerged from the back with an insinuating grin and a plumber's snake. Mortified late-night fringe characters rooted like medieval chefs in fecal Leshko's cauldrons of slop.

    There's no slop left over at the new Leshko's. There isn't anything left over from the old place at all, except for the name and basic infrastructure. There's an ironic genuflection in the direction of the pierogi, the signature dish of the immigrants who patronized the original restaurant a million years ago, back in a different East Village. A companion and I dropped by the new Leshko's last Tuesday evening around 8, and the place was already overstuffed with an under-30 clientele, uniformly dressed and coifed in that under-30 manner that pertains in downtown New York City, a provincial village whose folkways demand that its citizens conform to certain sartorial codes before they're allowed access to white bohemia's expansive freedoms. Ordered food, and enjoyed it, which wasn't difficult, since it didn't cost much, and since the youthful energy of the room, and the fact that it's easy to get loopy fast off the drinks menu they lay on you as soon as you sit down (we were drinking gimlets, but there are also mojitos and cosmos and screwy martinis and everything else that those in the know enjoy drinking at this moment in history), more or less ensures that you're having a good time, in the same way that you'll have a good time at the Odeon, no matter whether your fries are a bit desiccated this particular evening or not.

    The menu's a professional rendering of what's become a familiar downtown menu. We consumed:

    ?Fried calamari, with cornmeal crust and a roasted tomato citrus sauce. The pile of calamari arrived on a bed of lettuce, which was neither here nor there, and it was hot and chewy and good, which was also neither here nor there, the state of the art of calamari being nothing to expend a lot of emotional energy upon. Good. Good calamari. The advertised "roasted tomato citrus sauce" was inconclusive.

    We finished our gimlets, those fruity, glucose-saturated cups of gin.

    ?An order of "Leshko's famous mushroom and leek pirogues." Sic. This tripped me up, because I couldn't tell if the last word in that phrase was an innocent misprint or a lofty attempt at sophistication ending in disaster. According to my Webster's New World College Dictionary: "pirogue n. [Fr. < Sp piragua < Carib or Arawak] 1. a dugout canoe 2. any canoe-shaped boat." Fusion cuisine marches splendidly forth! But they were just pierogies, like I'd suspected, and fried ones, and good, and a little misleading in the end anyway, because tell someone of Eastern European descent that he's getting mushroom and leek pierogies, and he's going to expect the mushrooms and the leeks to be within the dumpling, in the same manner blueberry or cheese pierogies are defined by the manner in which those foods reside inside the binding dough, filling it, and don't just merely sit in their sauteed glory alongside what remain regular potato pierogies like any number of grandmothers used to fry up for their grateful apple-cheeked progeny. But there I had it: five pierogies, fried to a sweet light brown, filled with mashed potatoes, and served over a bed of the fungi and vegetables the menu had promised. After I stopped hyperventilating and resigned myself to the conceptual static, I enjoyed the things. These pierogies pad the stomach well. A dollop of sour cream garnished with minced chives resided in the plate's center.

    As entrees:

    ?Grilled tuna steak, described on the menu as "Yellowfin tuna in an herb crust with roasted beet salad, reduced balsamic vinegar and basil oil." Mmmm! Wow!

    Actually I should say more about the dish. The herb crust wasn't overbearing, like it can be when it comes to fish. It was a restrained layer of seasonings. In other words, that fine piece of fish hadn't been obscured and botched. Chopped beets were scattered all over the remainder of the white plate, and I like beets.

    ?"Country-style" chicken pot pie, which meant a plate bearing a pile of excellent, slightly chunky mashed potatoes and a white casserole dish, in which resided the pie itself, covered with a golden, herb-speckled crust. The thing was daunting, because the crust's stoutness seemed to defy me to break it. But eventually, girding myself, I found the moral strength to do so, and discovered beneath it the usual carrot-and-pea-flecked chicken stew. It was good enough that I enjoyed it, but not so good that I had to pay it much attention. Which is probably about all you can expect of a chicken pot pie.

    There's a nice wine list, too, stripped-down and manageable so as not to freak out the restaurant's young clientele. We had us some, well, unpretentious pinot noir. The whole meal, including the tip and excluding desserts, came to $90.

    A word about the restaurant's ambience. At some point deep into our relatively alcoholic evening we looked up from our plates and found congealing around us a crowd that consisted almost exclusively of young men. It was extraordinary. Sideburns, iridescent shirtings, coy pairings?a sense of pining flirtation there in the ironized art-directed upscale-diner environment of the place. It was like a Belle and Sebastian concert. The winking diner touches?like the metal-edged tables that gesture toward the original diner's formica?in concert with the Swingers-era Details magazine fashions being worn by the fellows around us?conduced to a minor time warp. There we were, in search of nothing but dinner, teletransported back into the Hush Puppy shank of the middle of the last decade. It occurred to me that they could have renamed the place Leshko's Gay Nineties, and marketed it as a theme restaurant. But it was probably just the night we were there.

    At any rate, a very worthwhile restaurant, which looks like it's already become a sort of Gen-X/Gen-Y canteen. To invoke the great Tribeca restaurant again, Leshko's is a sort of younger, less solvent Odeon. I don't get out and socialize any more than anybody else, but I was in Leshko's for no more than an hour before I'd run into three people I know.

    The help is efficient and extremely friendly, even to the point where they chased me down on Ave. A very charmingly after I, miscalculating, stiffed our waitress drastically on the check.