I've been on a kick lately where, call me crazy, I think food can be delicious, not terrible for you, and relatively inexpensive. One of my most recent jaunts on this new food journey of mine was the incredible Mr. Donahue's in Nolita, which I wrote about briefly last week. I was pointed toward the restaurant by the wonderful Pete Wells in his New York Times roundup of the best new restaurants in New York, shared with me by SJT. I'm not a person who needs a many-hundred (or even just one hundred) dollar tasting menu to be happy, nor have I ever been, so it was a pleasure to see a place like Mr. Donahue's on his list. Each entree on the small but well-planned menu is $20, and with it comes two sides and a choice of sauce (if you get the roast beef it's a little more at $26). I like Mr. Wells's style when it comes not just to writing (those Guy Fieri and Per Se takedowns are truly the stuff of legend at this point) but how he thinks about food--having had the pleasure of meeting the man last summer, I was pleased to find him unpretentious and considerate--so I was curious to see what Mr. Donahue's was all about.
SE and I rolled up to the restaurant on a very snowy Saturday, snowflakes sticking, as The Sound of Music would have it, to our noses and eyelashes. The space was teeny tiny, just two lunch counters and a four-top table, and it looked like it fell out of a 1970s television show set in the Midwest. Gold marbled mirrors, a browned Pepsi sign with white detachable letters, a vintage silver fan, brown leather barstools and brown wooden chairs next to white marble tables and doilies upon doilies caught my eye as we hovered by the doorway and waited for a place to sit. The restaurant doesn't take reservations, so we hungrily eyed the adorable clear glass or flowered china plates (they looked like they belonged to someone's grandmother--this restaurant may be small but it is brimming with style) filled with food of the patrons slowly making their way through their meals. We had both been studying the menu for weeks, mouths watering at the prospect of '70s-style home cooking in the form of Dry Aged Meatloaf, Duchess Potatoes, Crab Imperial, Banana Rum Pudding or a multitude of other options. Shortly our friends, K&O, arrived, and we took a seat at the only four-top that had magically appeared as they walked in.
As delicious as literally everything on the menu looked, both SE and I found ourselves drawn to the roast beef. I ordered mine with acorn squash, a watercress, endive, pomegranate seed and pistachio salad with mustard vinaigrette, and an herb garlic sauce. He chose the rotisserie red cabbage with Caesar dressing and croutons along with the Brussels sprouts Almondine topped with brown butter vinaigrette. Our "slabs of meat" as SE called them arrived swiftly, two perfectly pink, juicy rectangles with just enough fat teasing our eyeballs. We dug in to the slices, their edges salted and peppered for a savory tang. Having seen this item online for two weeks then in the flesh (pardon the pun), it was a delight to have it taste exactly as I hoped it would. Our table fell silent as everyone dug into their dishes (O ordered the steelhead trout and K ordered the chicken-fried pork cheeks), enjoying them too much to speak. The gingerbread crumble made my squash crackle with sweetness, and SE's rotisserie red cabbage was really the stuff dreams are made of. We realized we had literally seen the tiny red cabbages on the spit with the chickens when we walked in, and SE was served a quarter of one as his side. The cabbage, spun on that spit for god knows how long, slid apart with the slice of a fork, its subtle spice complemented by the creamy Caesar dressing. I could have just sat there and eaten a whole cabbage, if I'm honest, though I'm not sure what that would have done to my stomach. Oy.
It was one of those meals where I was sad to see everything go. You mean...it's all gone? We don't get to eat anymore? But O&K ordered a banana rum pudding topped with sweet, cloud-like whipped cream and brimming with firm bananas coated in a caramelized sugar glaze and our mouths were happy once more. I'm still sad the meal is over but I'm happy to know that Mr. Donahue's will be there whenever I want it to be, hopefully for a while.