They say that New York is one of the few cities where you can get road rage walking. The post-Christmas shopping crowd on lower Broadway was appalling. And I wasn’t even really shopping. The density of tourists and out of towners meandering and stopping suddenly and consulting maps and iphones, combined with the street vendors, made the sidewalk almost impassible. I cut over to Crosby street and doubled back to the Angelika to catch a movie.
Afterwards, the crowd thinned a bit by dark and cold, I wandered around in search of a bite to eat. The canopy said “Dumpling Diva” so in I went. Past the thermal curtain was a small room with maybe ten tables and a decor that can best be described as ongepotchket, but in a good way, a bit like a hipster version of Cuchi Cuchi. I wish I had more time to study the art on the walls and the contents of the seasonal display table. As it turns out, the place is actually called The Kitchen Club.
I started off with a tasty glass of Boccadigabbia largely because it’s fun to say. The Rosso Piceno 2006 if you’re keeping track. The menu had several small plates that looked interesting, most for around $10, including several varieties of dumplings. I ordered pumpkin soup with ginger and cream and a set of mushroom dumplings.
Sipping my wine and people-watching, I suddenly became aware that there was a dog in the dining room. A bulldog I think, wearing a red bandana knotted at a jaunty angle, and wandering from table to table. Not some socialite’s purse dog on the loose. Not a service dog guiding the blind or a police dog protecting our safety. Not a stray hustling for scraps. This dog was part of the operation, an official dog, an intact offog if you will. I started to notice pictures of this dog on the walls.
I tried not to panic. I’m not a dog person and I’m not used to seeing dogs in restaurants. Clearly the dog lives or works here. It’s probably not going to freak out or make a move on somebody’s food or mount the nearest leg of the nearest diner. But it’s a dog and its in the dining room of a restaurant. That’s not ok, is it? You certainly can’t bring your dog into a restaurant, can you? (ok, I know some people who do, but that dog is kept in a duffel bag at all times) Maybe it’s better to have a dog in the dining room than in the kitchen, but how do I know there aren’t ten more like this one in there? Give the opportunity, many dogs will eat poo, their own or somebody else’s. They can be polite and respectful but they can’t be servsafe certified because they can’t read. I scanned my soup for traces of fur or slobber.
The dog visited the table next to mine where one diner cooed at it and even touched it. Another diner told the story of someone who forged a letter from a psychologist so that he or she could take a treasured pet on a transcontinental flight in the cabin rather than in the hold by declaring it a service animal for some made up anxiety disorder. Then the bulldog tuned to me.
“Sorry buddy. I didn’t go to Yale.” I turned back to my dumplings but kept the pooch in peripheral vision. It’s hard to eat dumplings while white-knuckling your chopsticks.
Chibi – that’s the dog’s name, I have since learned – saw that I wasn’t interested and moved along. I unclenched just a bit. The soup was smooth and creamy, slightly tangy, and entirely hairless. The dumplings, served in a neat row in a narrow sushi type plate with ginger soy sauce, were steamed potsticker style and chock full of mushroomy goodness, heavy on shiitake and portabella, maybe others, too. Lots of sesame seeds on top, too.
Despite my lingering unease about the dog, I was warming up to the place, so I ordered another glass of wine and the stuffed sardines. Bulldogs don’t like sardines, do they? Who am I kidding, dogs eat anything. That’s why we call them dogs. After what seemed like a long time, I was served two whole grilled sardines with some greens. The sardines smelled great but were a little dry, and the stuffing – thyme or tarragon, I think – was a bit stemmy. I wanted to eat them whole, like I did in Croatia years ago, but they were a little large to crunch down on the bones. I ate most of the first sardine before I figured that out. I deftly zipped the spine out of the second one. There was no salt on the table, but that was the first time I had missed it.
After I paid the bill, Marja Samsom, the chef-owner – and dumpling diva – popped by to ask me how things were. I wasn’t really up for explaining the totality of my feelings, so I went with “very nice, thank you.” My unease about the whole dog thing should do nothing to diminish the enjoyable character of the place and the unimpressive sardines shouldn’t diminish the rest of the meal or the excellent service. I didn’t even touch the mains, so this is definitely someplace to return. Next time I’ll be sure to have a nerve-settling drink before I have to face Chibi.