By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
While some people hate eating out alone, I've always believed there are few more civilized solitary pleasures than reading over a satisfying meal cooked, served, and cleaned up by someone else. In this context, where one is wallowing in words as much as munchies, "satisfying" most often means simple food rather than complex dishes that demand attention and a comfy setting. So the November 2001 opening of 5061 Eaterie & Deli, a renovated 1949 building in Morningside housing a restaurant, a deli, and a bookstore, sounded exciting, especially because advance press releases billed it as a casual "neighborhood meeting place" that encouraged lounging around. 5061 sounded so intriguing it was difficult to wait the standard six to eight weeks responsible reviewers grant restaurants for ironing out kinks.
But I did wait, fortunately, since several recent visits suggested that still more shakedown time will be necessary before this promising but still uneven spot settles comfortably into an identity.
Certainly one's initial impression of 5061 is not of a casual neighborhood café. Outside there's a valet parking stand (though self-parking is possible, too); inside is not a rustic hideaway you can slouch into but an expansive two-story open-architecture space inspired by Bauhaus design and coordinated by a maitre d' who, the instant diners enter the door, immediately and electronically communicates their table number to staff elsewhere in the huge complex. As it turned out, though, 5061 may have SoBe/SoHo style, but the personnel sure didn't have SoBe/SoHo-style attitude; everyone I encountered was relatively well-informed about 5061's food and extremely eager to please.
Dishes themselves were a mixed bag: some were tasty, some pretty terrible. But what was particularly puzzling about 5061's food is that none of the usual helpful rules reviewers are supposed to pass on to readers -- what to eat and what to avoid in a given eatery -- seemed to apply. "For a great meal, stick to basic preparations accenting freshness and avoiding elaborately “creative' sauces" is the useful rule most commonly found in reviews. Or one particularly relevant in Miami's Fusionland: "At most “global' concept places, the cuisine of one nation inevitably comes across better than others, and indeed at this restaurant, featuring the foods of Paris, northern Newfoundland, and certain insect-eating areas of rural Mexico, the foie gras somehow proved more ultimately satisfying than either the dried codfish with Jell-O or the chocolate-covered live caterpillar grubs."
At 5061 it was impossible to generalize. For instance, after sampling pissaladière Provençal on a first visit, I'd have strongly suggested the rule "Avoid any preparation described as originating in Provence or, to be safe, anywhere near the south of France." What pissaladière is in Provence: a savory topping that's most often just sautéed onion and anchovies but sometimes features intensely concentrated essence-of-ripe-tomato sauce and olives, on a freshly baked crust that is either pastryish (in which case it's buttery) or pizzaish (in which case it's thin and crisp). What 5061's pissaladière slice was: an appallingly oversalted underripe tomato topping garnished with anchovies plus one olive half, atop a thick crust that was hard as plywood on the bottom and a waterlogged dough on top. I've no idea how long ago the thing had been overbaked and then left sitting and soaking, but it was absolutely inedible.
Needless to say I was reluctant to sample quiche Provençal. But it was totally terrific! The crust was melt-in-your-mouth, not soggy. The filling was a light yet rich custard, encompassing mushrooms, garlic, and herbs -- plus perky tomato slices that provided refreshing contrast. Spinach quiche, though not as boldly flavored as the Provençal, had the same great crust and the smooth filling around the fresh-tasting and still somewhat crisp-textured green vegetable: skillfully done. The texture of a spinach-cheese empanada, however, was compromised by some variety of cheese that coated the roof of one's mouth unpleasantly. How does the same chef turn out a perfect quiche filling and a clunky empanada filling? Your guess is as good as mine.
A salmon-tuna carpaccio appetizer, served on fresh fennel slices, also was hit or miss. Salmon tasted fresh but tuna tasted off, and the very strong taste of an accompanying lemon-oil dressing with capers seemed like a classic French coverup. Very possibly 5061's raw tuna is usually fresher -- anyone who follows this paper's restaurant columns realizes tuna quality has been erratic in South Florida for at least a year -- but when I tried to test this theory on a subsequent visit by ordering a raw-tuna sushi maki from a faxed menu more than a month old, I was told by deli personnel that a sushi chef hadn't yet been hired. "Maybe next month." So sorry, readers: For raw-fish quality it's your guess, again.
Two sandwiches, a "traditional" prosciutto and mozzarella on solid country bread and a "neighborhood" Lemon City (Virginia ham, salami, Provolone) on a genuinely French but limp-crusted baguette, also differed dramatically in quality. The former featured imported prosciutto di Parma and, at my request, imported buffalo mozzarella (at no extra price); the latter, while tasty, used cold cuts and cheese of no better than supermarket "premium" quality. The quality difference was especially puzzling given that the price difference was only 26 cents.