Still satisfying after all these years
Not that great restaurant towns are necessarily built on mismatched china, blackboard menus, and cream of mushroom soup. But in the 1970s, the idea that quality dining could exist outside the stuffy confines of a private club, that good food could become the province of interested amateurs as well as the great chefs, liberated the city to new possibilities for the neighborhood restaurant.
The birth story of Friday Saturday Sunday - seven friends with virtually no experience throwing $2,000 into a hat on a dare to "take turns running it" - has the quaint ring of nostalgia in today's high-gloss restaurant atmosphere. We still have plenty of amateurs opening restaurants, of course, but they seem to have millions of dollars to invest. Big-name designers flesh out their "concepts." And most chefs these days have a culinary degree hidden under their baseball-cap toques.
Suddenly, the mere survival of this cozy corner restaurant, squeezed into rowhouse romance by mirrored walls, padded banquettes, and a streak of indigo neon that rings the room, seems a fluke of naivete. Yet two very satisfying recent meals at the old haunt gave me several good reasons Friday Saturday Sunday is not only still around, but also still one of the better neighborhood eateries in town. Consistently solid cooking with quality fresh products. An intimate retro ambience mellowed by the tunes of Johnny Hartman, John Coltrane and Billie Holliday. And fair value, especially with its fabulous wine-pricing policy.
I'd like to see the list push the envelope more, with some truly fine wines marked up only $10. But considering the uncomplicated style of cooking, a cellar meant more for drinking than collecting also seems appropriate.
There is a certain cheesecake nostalgia to the eclectic menu here. It blends basic French with American stalwarts from the '70s, with occasional Asian flair, and daily specials ranging from Creole to Southwestern. The result is an easy hodgepodge of gently updated comfort food, always fresh and deftly prepared by executive chef Chakapope Sirirathasuk, known as "Chuck 2" since he began at the restaurant 18 years ago as a dishwasher.
Restaurant scenes may not be built on mushroom soup, but I can understand why it has anchored this menu since the beginning. Coarsely pureed and slowly steeped with cognac into a creamy, earthy essence, every bite gives the forgotten satisfaction of milky richness and texture. Other retro classics - tender breaded chicken breasts napped in mustard cream, dark-fleshed Cornish hen stuffed with apples and walnuts, then glazed with cider and calavados - were just as nicely done.
During his tenure as chef, Sirirathasuk, who is Thai and Hmong, has introduced some Asian flavors to the menu. Deliciously spiced shrimps are grilled and served as an appetizer with a Thai dipping sauce. Duck is rubbed with soy and Asian spices before roasting, then served with garlicky Thai noodles. Sashimi-grade tuna is seared with a sesame-seed crust before it is sliced and chilled, the coolness cleverly reviving freshness to the ruby raw center, perked with a sheen of spicy wasabi vinaigrette.
While this menu can seem somewhat dated at times, its appeal remains in the uncomplicated quality of the ingredients. Super fresh salads employ simple but strong combinations - brightly dressed arugula with juicy bursts of grape tomatoes, mixed greens with walnut vinaigrette and an unctuous dollop of soft, tart goat cheese, crisp spears of poached asparagus topped with a chunky tomato dressing with just the right tartness.
The vegetarian lasagna was one notable flop, a sloppy heap of produce, noodles and cheese that left a salty pucker from a tomato sauce overpowered by olives. But the ravioli dishes were a delight, tender pillows in a sun-dried tomato blush that tasted of sweet lobster and cheese, and another rendition I remember from quite a while ago, wild mushroom dumplings ringed by an excellent watercress cream.
Other classically prepared entrees were satisfying for their consistent focus on good products. A moist and tender pork chop was graced with the tan richness of Roquefort cream. Crabcakes were filled with sweet crustacean, bound with herbs and scallions and nicely crisped. Lightly breaded tilapia had the soft spark of fresh horseradish in its crust, a tequila lime butter sauce to draw the mildness of flavor to a fresh peak. Delicate fillets of flounder wrapped a plump sandwich around an interesting twist on stuffing - crab meat, mixed with tiny pearls of whole bay scallops, and the tangy richness of brie cheese.
A lean and meaty Australian rack of lamb crusted in garlic and herbs was simply perfect - once my waiter took it back to the kitchen to be cooked a little more. He was quite friendly and accommodating about it, at least compared to our next visit when the staff seemed panicked and brusque.
It was a busy night, but considering that most of this staff has been around for a decade or more, one might expect them to navigate the tiny room (and deal with unfamiliar customers) more effortlessly.
That is not to say things always get easier with experience. The restaurant's entire menu, in fact, used to be written on the fluorescent chalkboard in the center of the room. But that, says manager Joni Popowcer, was before the restaurant's aging clientele (and owner, for that matter) decided printed menus would be easier to read.
Diners will still have to squint at the board if they want to see what's for dessert, but it will be worth the eyestrain. Gently spiced, moist carrot cake comes filled with nuts and fruit, glazed in a thick frosting of cream-cheese icing. Kentucky Derby walnut and pecan pie laced with bourbon is too rich for its own good. A thick wedge of creamy coconut pie clad in a crumb crust of vanilla wafers tastes just like the one my grandma used to make (actually, better). And a tall soft wedge of luscious cheesecake, not too sweet and just a hint tangy, is unstoppably good over a refreshing pool of freshly pureed berries.
It is a dessert list straight from the bake sales of yore, a satisfying blast from the past as much as anything here. It's also a reminder of a more innocent time, when homey cakes and pies were the ultimate seduction at dinner's end, and when a bunch of clueless friends could launch a restaurant on a dare. Who could have known that it would have endured this handsomely for nearly three decades?
Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.