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Ivy Restaurant

A perfect pre-theater scene  
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  August 22, 2006
2.0 2.0 Stars

WITH ITS: wine bargains and good Italian food, Ivy will grow on you.
This space used to be Limbo, an electronica lounge with terrific ultra-modern small plates. The servers would say “Welcome to Limbo” with a smile. But, for whatever reason, the limbo moment passed. Now we have Ivy, with similar music, more conventional and darker décor in the multi-level space, and an Italian menu that is done quite well, as well as an interesting wine policy. In addition, it is in what is still, despite Mantra across the street, an underserved part of downtown near the Theater District.

The only drawback, and this may not matter to everyone, is that the menu hasn’t changed in 10 months. Italian food is good year-round, but it’s odd to see a serious menu in August without local corn, tomatoes, seasonal fish, and other special opportunities. The exception our night was a lot of fresh arugula in garnishes and side salads. The upside of this drawback (or plan) is generally lower prices.

The breadbasket is full of crusty slices with a lot of big holes, not perfect for soaking up the clean, herbal extra-virgin olive oil, but ideal for the cloves of roasted garlic alongside. Salads serve about three people, “per la tavola” — a wonderful idea. The Caesar ($10) had a nice garlicky dressing, with cheese in the croutons, and was quite refreshing. Also listed with the appetizers is the only plausible dessert, a cheese platter (market price; recently $14). The cheeses were picked for a wedding: something old (aged and nutty shavings with balsamic glaze), something new and blue, and something smoked (Gouda). The fruits were fine fresh watermelon, average pineapple wedges, and giant seedless red grapes.

Small plates could serve as appetizers or a snack, or two could be a meal for many people. Pasta plates were the size you get in Italy. Gnocchi Sorrentina ($11) were dense pasta nuts with a spicy tomato sauce. Tiger-shrimp linguine ($12) was not as al dente as it would have been in Italy, but it was nicely flavored, with just-wilted arugula and very tender shrimp.

On the protein tip, duck confit ($12) was a small, nicely cured leg (though not with spices), and a side salad of arugula. Mussels ($9) were a fine little heap, reasonably plump for the season, with a good dipping sauce with plenty of garlic and pepper. Tuna ($12) was sushi-quality slices, seared on one side and crusted with black and white sesame seeds. The dip was the kind of pink-mayonnaise hot sauce you get in the hotter sushi places. There was also a tiny side salad of shredded cucumber and a bit of dill. Scallops ($12) were three tasty sea scallops with a lot of pancetta (which now seems to include smoked bacon on Italian menus) and a wisp of sauce.

There are also side dishes, such as herbed frîtes ($5), which weren’t herbed or crisp, but did have a lot of potato flavor, served in a paper bag on a fancy plate. Grilled asparagus ($5) were nicely done, but with the sub-pencil-thin asparagus available in August: kind of chewy. This is the time of year when you should put in something like grilled zucchini instead.

There are only four real entrées, and at least three are excellent. Pan-roasted cod ($17) is a vertical plate of scalloped red potatoes, topped with perfectly cooked meaty codfish, and that in turn is topped with stewed tomatoes. Pollo bella Napoli ($17) is a variant on the popular dish of pork and peppers, typically served with oven-roasted potatoes. Here, the chicken is in boneless chunks with green bell peppers, and the potatoes are in a vinegary sauce that I liked enough to ask for more bread with which to sop it up.

Florentine steak (market price; recently $24) would be, in Florence, a thick Porterhouse served blood-rare. I requested medium-rare, and the steak (cooked to order) was one of those trapezoidal cuts that are hard to place: top sirloin? Tip steak? Club steak? Whatever it was, it had a good balance of tenderness and beefiness, with a bit of sauce (or seasoned jus) that made it special. The smashed potatoes, skin-on with some herbal mix-ins, were superb.

The wine policy at Ivy is to maintain a long list, mostly Italian, but with others from around the world to fill in, all at the same price: $26 per bottle, $10 for a six-ounce glass, $18 for a 12-ounce “Quartino.” The stemware is large, so the wines will show well. Given that many restaurants these days have few bottles under $30, this will be a 60-choice boon to the drinker of moderate-price restaurant wine.

Ivy does not have desserts. This is a reasonable policy for a restaurant whose dinner business may prove to be mostly pre-theater, and which wants lounge and small-plate customers for most of the evening. Wine lovers could use that cheese plate for dessert. The restaurant, however, will offer you a complimentary little dish of ice cream, with a tiny cone as garnish. We inhaled ours.

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