I once worked for a restaurant owner who was a gambler. He actually believed that dumping coins into a slot machine had better payoff odds than opening a new restaurant. Restaurants can be a bad gamble, he said, because so many variables can throw off your luck. “A bad location, a menu that never catches on or quickly goes out of fashion, a lazy manager — you name it,” he said. “But the worst is bad mojo. You can never survive bad mojo.”
A case in point on the local restaurant landscape: Last year, two restaurants opened at roughly the same time about five miles apart. They were both independently owned operations in midtown neighborhoods surrounded by other popular eating establishments. They both had intimate, attractive dining rooms and eclectic menus.
Unfortunately for the restaurant in the more visible, desirable location, Jenny’s Place in Waldo was doomed by deadly mojo. The food was mediocre, the servers were untrained, and the place had an unmistakable aroma of impending disaster. You know what disaster smells like, don’t you? The movie version of The Dukes of Hazzard. Paris Hilton’s wedding plans. Cherubic Clay Aiken trolling the Internet for what he hoped would be anonymous sex. Blame it on the mojo.
The other restaurant got all the good luck. It helped, of course, that the owners of Room 39 were attractive and talented, served imaginative and consistently delicious food and hired — and trained — a professional wait staff. That’s why Jenny’s Place is now closed and the 17-month-old Room 39 has customers waiting in line and recently expanded its hours to serve dinner four nights a week.
It would be fair to say that Room 39 owners Andrew Sloan and Ted Habiger hit the jackpot by taking a gamble on an unlikely location (a grimy former coffeehouse on 39th Street) and turning it into a sunny and attractive 11-table bistro that, in its first year, served only breakfast and lunch.
“We always planned to serve dinner,” Sloan says. “It just took a long time to get a liquor license.”
There was also the little problem of their thriving catering business, which is the main reason that Sloan and Habiger are open for dinner only on weeknights. “Our kitchen is just too small to do weekend dinner business and prepare food for a wedding reception with 350 guests.”
I’ve always maintained that the best night to go out for a nice, leisurely dinner is any night except Friday and Saturday. On traditionally slow “school nights,” as they’re called in the industry, most customers don’t stay up late, and the let’s-hire-a-baby-sitter set doesn’t go out at all. So dining rooms are less frenetic, customers aren’t expecting dinner to be a Big Fat Evening Out, and it’s easier to find a place to park.
Reservations usually aren’t mandatory on weeknights, either. But they are at Room 39, where there are fewer than a dozen tables and there’s already a buzz about the joint. Seats are at a premium, especially the good ones — not too close to the entrance, just far enough away from the restroom and the kitchen. In fact, on the night I was dining with Bob and Connie, I got a front-row view of a squabble between two society matrons.
Our trio had requested a reservation several days earlier, but the dueling doyennes apparently had not, and they both wanted the same two-top. Sadly they didn’t come to blows (Connie was hoping for some hair-pulling and spitting), but there was a fleeting moment of well-coifed tension before the less aggressive woman fled.
“They were actually pretty civil about it all,” Connie concluded as she unfurled a white cloth napkin. “I probably would have thrown something.”
I pushed a tiny glass vase filled with pink carnations in her direction, in case she felt inspired to throw something later.
Inspiration is everywhere at Room 39. The new dinner menu, for example, is a creative collaboration between Sloan and the restaurant’s new chef de cuisine, Howard Hanna (formerly of 40 Sardines). The options vary from day to day, but Hanna and Sloan always include at least two seafood choices, a beef or lamb dish and one vegetarian meal.
First, though, comes a tiny and tasty little amuse-bouche — on this night, a delicious dollop of savory bread pudding baked with brie and mushrooms.
Starters are expensive but elegant. Silky jade-green asparagus flan spread beautifully on crunchy crostini, but we were disappointed in the appetizer-sized plate of risotto with rabbit confit, which sounded enticing but lacked sensual appeal. “It looks and tastes like chicken-and-rice casserole,” Connie decided. Bob, who won’t touch bunny in any form, concentrated on a small plate of doughy, leaf-shaped strascinata tossed in oregano pesto and dotted with pine nuts. Our server was scandalized when I plucked the anchovies off the pissaladiere, a pastry round topped with caramelized onions and olives. Anchovies are nice in Nice (where this tart is Provencal’s answer to pizza and the salty fish balances out the sweetness of the cooked onions), but they’re too salty for moi.
While we waited for the main courses to arrive, we watched the dining room fill up with familiar faces: a local novelist dining with a friend at one table and, at another, a stylish quartet of a magazine editor, her high-profile husband, a freelance writer and a former fashion model.
“It’s sort of a who’s-who crowd, isn’t it?” Connie said. It’s the same way at lunch, I assured her. I’ve never gone into the place when some demi-celebrity wasn’t holding court; I even saw a normally reticent actor turn unexpectedly gregarious one afternoon. Was there something in his veggie burger?
There was definitely something — most likely chili and cumin — rubbed into Bob’s hanger steak, which Connie and I liked more than he did. “It’s chewy,” he said, sulking. Not true, though the grainy texture of this cut of beef can be off-putting to some. Connie loved every bite of a particularly fluffy hunk of pan-seared halibut, splashed with an amber garlic broth and sided with asparagus, artichokes and mashed potatoes. I indulged in several bites of the steak and the halibut before tackling my own dinner, slices of thyme-marinated pork tenderloin dripping with a delicate wine-and-herb sauce.
After eating every morsel on my own plate and a good part of my companions’ dinners, I couldn’t fathom dessert. But Bob and Connie fancied a bit of chocolate as a finale. Not chef Hanna’s flaky profiteroles blanketed with thick chocolate-Kahlua sauce — which would have been my choice — but the chocolate pot au crème, a creamy custard baked in a lidded cup so that it’s satiny smooth like crème brûlée, its sugar-crusted cousin.
I couldn’t resist the temptation to poke my own spoon into the rich cocoa concoction, but Connie was possessive of the confection. “This is about the best thing I’ve ever had in my long, decadent life,” she said.
The best things in life aren’t always free, and at Room 39, the desserts run about six bucks each. But there’s no gambling on whether the food will have an emotionally satisfying payout. Room 39 is a lucky number.