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Chef Todd MacDonald; photography by Dominic Perri

The Road, to Salvation

by Gael Greene | Manhattan magazine | April 1, 2013

We’re meeting for dinner at Willow Road. My friend can’t find it. That’s because the neon sign says: “Bar.” Oh… cute. Well, the partners here teethed mostly in the club scene. Maybe that’s why the staff is still so green. I want to spank them already for the greeting at the podium: “You’re the first to arrive,” the young woman begins. “Why don’t you wait at the bar?”

It’s early-ish. The place is half-empty. “Why not just put me at the table you’ve chosen,” I suggest. “It’s not going away.”

There’s a swift consultation, and I’m settled on a tufted banquette behind a distressed wooden tabletop banded with metal. Granted, someone took time with the look: patches of white tile, vitrines holding vintage grocery store boxes, a typewriter standing on end, “Baked by Electricity” in baby blue neon on the ceiling over the bar. That’s an ode to what was once the Nabisco Baking Company Building.

At least the kitchen is serious. And small plates suit me. You get to taste more. I’m suspicious of lemon and fennel pollen and parsley in my macaroni, but these are nice plump elbows tossed in butter and olive oil with crisp bacon bits. Not baked like most. Got to give chef Todd MacDonald an A for daring a macaroni that has never been done before. The 20-greens salad with herbs, aged Pecorino and a nice rubble of pistachio crunch is fine, too. And my companion actually likes the mussels à la plancha, which you dip into kumquat-drawn butter, although I find them scrawny and too cooked.

I ask for bread. The server says there is none. I find that annoying. Neither of us notices that the menu offers grilled bread with a hunk of aged cheddar and a shot of bourbon for $9.

By 9:30 the joint is jumping, four-deep at the bar. With entrées from $12 to $25, we’re not tempted to order a 28-day-dry-aged bone-in prime rib-eye for the table at $140. And the beef potpie, a large plate but just $19, is really delicious under its puff pastry lid—so delicious that I’m back for lunch a few days later.

The nomads of the nights have retreated. Lunch is new, and spottily subscribed so far—a few workers from nearby Google, some mommies with strollers, our hungry foursome. It’s the same dinner menu, now fortified with sandwiches and soups. An intense fennel and potato cream is unctuous and full of flavor, but I wouldn’t call it “chowder.” Chowder is chunky. There’s an elusive something in the appealing eggplant mash (honey and red-pepper relish) that comes in a jar to spread on toast. Bread, bread, bread. Of course there’s bread.

The excellent lamb burger with aged cheddar and a side of chips is wonderfully rare. I’d come back just for that if I were a local. And when I’m feeling more Mediterranean, the sea bass escabeche po’boy with lemon garlic aioli would be perfect. There’s even cauliflower à la plancha with golden raisins and pine nuts for vegetarians, and roast beef with horseradish cream for cavemen.

My guests are impressed by the perfect cooking of the seared scallops with fennel salad, but ignore buttermilk-fried chicken with jerk spices. It’s admirably juicy but honey makes it too sweet for me, and its thick crumbing oozes fat.

After I chastise the hapless server for interrupting a guest in the middle of a story, we struggle to get her attention again. At last, it arrives: a nice sticky toffee pudding we share. Getting the check takes long, graceless waving of arms.

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It’s Fashion Week when my food-obsessed writer friend and I climb up to our tall corner table at Salvation Taco and survey the room. The two of us wonder if it’s just the neighborhood, or if it’s chic now to look pitifully real, like in Girls. I mean Uggs, jeggings and Michael Kors totes. Perhaps all the pretty people are red-carpeting elsewhere.

In every way, this 200-seat beanery (if you count the lobby of Pod 39, a Murray Hill budget hotel) is an odd voyage for the very classic April Bloomfield and her partner, Ken Friedman. At the Breslin, in their home base at the Ace Hotel, the crowd is hot. Lobby lingerers are usually gorgeous lynxes.

And tacos. Well, I suppose if you’ve ever eaten tacos you can design them. Here there’s a Korean barbecue taco and one with Moroccan lamb on naan bread. If you order all seven tacos they come lined up on a wooden board. If you’re with someone you know well enough to kiss, you can bite off half and share the other half.

I like them all, though maybe the fried fish with Mayan mayo and the roasted cauliflower with curried cream are superior to the tight lamb cubes on naan and the skirt steak with pecan and chipotle. Throw in the taco al pastor and the crispy sweetbread with chickpea and I’m fulfilled.

Alas, we’ve ordered two taco boards. I’ve already eaten most of the pork belly and pineapple salad before I realize how much I like the soupy beef chili and kimchi pork belly pozole. But most shocking to both me and my pal is that we’re actually finishing off a big bowl of the crispy pigs’ ears. They’re scary to look at, and chewy. They stick to our teeth. But they’re wonderful. Maybe addictive.

We order what turn out to be very pedestrian churros with Mexican chocolate. One bite is enough. But pumpkin ice cream sent by the kitchen as a gift makes a perfect mouth freshener.

Willow Road
85 Tenth Ave., between 15th and 16th Streets, 646.484.6566
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11am-3pm
Dinner: Mon.-Sun., 5:30pm-3am
Brunch: Sat. and Sun., 11am-3pm

Salvation Taco
145 E. 39th St., 212.865.5800
Breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 7am-noon, Sat. and Sun., 7am-11am
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., Noon-5pm
Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 5pm-12am, Thu.-Sat., 5:30pm-2am
Brunch: Sat. and Sun., 11am-5pm