What is a neighborhood restaurant? It depends
on the neighborhood. In Park Slope, bistros abound; ditto for
Smith Street in Boerum Hill. In Bay Ridge, locals have flocked
to 101 Restaurant & Bar since its opening, 14 years ago.
Sitting on the corner of 101st Street and Fourth Avenue, the restaurant looks like a cross between the kind of big, loft-like cafe you’d find in SoHo, circa 1985, coupled with a sports bar.
Sound like an unfortunate pairing? At 101, the opposites work in a surprisingly successful way.
On a hot night, the floor-to-ceiling windows slide open offering pedestrians a view of the crowd at the bar and dining room, and the diners inside a perfect perch for people-watching. The ceilings are high, and the tables well spaced. Looking just beyond the outdoor tables that ring the restaurant, there’s a show-stopping view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, its lights twinkling in the distance.
Beside the dining room, there’s a bar scene that can get loud as the night progresses. Two huge television screens, perched on either side of the dining room, remind the crowd that 101 is a casual eatery that isn’t trying too hard to be chic.
The menu, too, aims to please customers who appreciated well-prepared Italian dishes with just a few trendy touches for variety. So, on the appetizer list, you’ll find spring rolls with a sweet chili sauce next to fried calamari for two; and on the entree roundup, you’ll find traditional favorites like chicken with sausage and sweet peppers, and a Chilean sea bass with an "Oriental ginger sauce."
Chef Reyes Acquinos’ menu doesn’t get more adventurous than that. That’s a good thing, because when he stays in Italy, his flavors are balanced and lively. Head east though, and trouble lurks.
Our waiter, an affable guy who was happy to share his opinion on different dishes, suggested we split two pastas. Each, he assured us, had a lot of flavor. He was right. The twisted rotelle made a delicious pillow for chunks of melting mozzarella and slices of hot sausage; we tore slices of warm Italian bread from the basket on the table to mop up the pasta’s rich sun-dried tomato cream sauce. We also admired the penne topped with big sauteed shrimp. The pasta is crisped after cooking in hot olive oil, so it becomes pleasantly browned and chewy. Slivers of fresh cilantro and sun-dried tomato add a herbaceous, earthy note, and a squeeze of fresh lemon gives a tart zing to the ingredients.
I doubt you’ll find a plate of more appealing pork chops than the one served at 101. Two thick, juicy chops with a thin, crusty breading are ringed in a balsamic vinegar sauce that sports slices of hot cherry peppers. The sauce is tart without overpowering the pork, and the peppers give a jolt of heat. Perfect creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach complete the dish. It’s an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes affair that is comfortingly familiar but not the least bit dull.
The Chilean sea bass with sauteed escarole and cannelloni beans wasn’t dull either, but I wouldn’t order it again. Alone, the trio would have worked just fine. The fish was moist; the escarole was just bitter enough to enhance the sweetness of the fish; and the beans were tender. But no one tasted the dish’s cloyingly sweet "ginger Oriental sauce" before it emerged from the kitchen. If they had, they’d have realized that it belonged over ice cream, not the entree.
There’s chocolate ice cream over flourless chocolate cake on the dessert menu, and a few other crowd-pleasing, but not exciting, sweets like cheesecake and apple crisp. And, it’s hard to take a dessert roundup seriously, if it includes chocolate mousse mixed with chunks of Oreo cookies. The tiramisu though, was exceptionally light and doused with enough espresso to ensure a sleepless night.
101 Restaurant & Bar may not be the kind of place I think of as a neighborhood hangout - that honor is reserved for down-at-the-heels dives that serve burgers.
But, I have to love a place where huge, custom-crafted hogs are parked just outside the restaurant - next to the valet parking sign, and blondes dripping in gold jewelry dine beside Hulk Hogan look-alikes. Especially when the men finish their pasta, climb atop those bikes and roar away into the night.
101 Restaurant & Bar (Fourth Avenue at 101st Street in Bay Ridge) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $18-$36. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. For reservations call (718) 833-1313.