June 19, 2010 12:22 am

One-dish wonders

 
Diners at The Meatball Shop in Manhattan

The Meatball Shop in Manhattan

At brunch-time last Saturday, chef Daniel Holzman was taking me through the menu at his restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “You can have classic beef, spicy pork, chicken or vegetable,” he said, beaming with enthusiasm, “and then you choose your sauce – classic tomato, spicy meat, mushroom gravy or parmesan cream.” Next were the sides, including polenta and white beans, then the cheese (provolone or mozzarella) and lastly the bread (white or wholewheat).

“All the options are good,” he concluded. All good, yes – and all, arguably, the same, for Holzman’s restaurant only serves variations on one item: meatballs.

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Holzman opened the Meatball Shop with his childhood friend Michael Chernow in February, when it immediately gained plaudits and attracted queues of at least an hour every night (it closes at 2am). In fact, the shop is the latest in a string of fashionable “single-food” establishments to open in New York in the past five years – from a café that serves nothing but cannolis (Sicillian pastry desserts) to a restaurant specialising in macaroni cheese.

Many of these – like Pommes Frites, a small East Village venue serving traditional Belgian fries, or Bark, an upmarket hot-dog restaurant in Brooklyn – elevate a traditionally working class or fast food. The ingredients used at the Meatball Shop are locally sourced and organic, and the meat, Holzman tells me proudly, is ground on-site. The decor is similarly nostalgic, with family photographs on the walls and a bar made from salvaged wood – designed to look, says Holzman, as if it has always been there.

The oldest single-food restaurants in New York – pizzerias – have specialised for convenience’s sake; others – like Risotteria, a risotto restaurant on Bleeker Street that is a hit with the gluten-averse – have benefited from a niche market.

For Holzman, the disadvantages of running a “single-food” restaurant (that he “might become hopelessly, utterly bored with meatballs”) are outweighed by the benefits. “You can actually be good at something,” he says, “and explore it thoroughly.” Meatballs are, he believes, sufficiently a part of the American culinary heritage for his restaurant not to seem “gimmicky”, even if it is clear that meatballs are having a “moment” (last year even saw the launch of Meatball Madness, a city-wide competition to find the best). Holzman likes the idea that his restaurant is simple and “concept-driven”, rather than reliant on the prowess of a star chef.

There is a paradox, however, in this “simple” world of mono-menus. Being limited to one product brings with it the temptation to dream up never-ending variations of the original. At S’Mac, a macaroni cheese restaurant in the East Village, I was challenged to “build my own” meal in three steps, or to choose from a selection of 12 flavours, including Masala, Cajun and Cheeseburger.

For dessert, I went to Rice to Riches – a restaurant in Nolita with white walls, high counters and a proliferation of signs and notices, as in a public bathroom, that serves exclusively rice pudding. After sampling a few varieties – including mango, tasting faintly like shampoo – I felt despondent. This dish, I realised, had no relation to the rice pudding of my memories or dreams. What of slow, oven-baked rice pudding with nutmeg? Or cheap and cheerful school-dinner rice pudding? As I ate the pudding out of a bowl the shape of a grain of rice with a spoon resembling a shoe-horn, I worried about the future of New York’s macaroni cheese, rice pudding and risotto – all these lovely carbohydrate comfort foods reduced to being dressed up in novelty flavours, like a variety pack of crisps.

The Meatball Shop was more uplifting. When my meatballs arrived – round and squashed and smashed, hidden in buns and covered in sauce – I understood why the restaurant was bustling. You can’t go far wrong with nice ingredients; even the vegetarian option was well-seasoned and crunchy with walnuts. But I must confess that, of the combinations I tried, the classic beef and tomato sauce won. Of course, if you want to raise eyebrows, you could just order a salad.

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Details

The Meatball Shop, www.themeatballshop.com

Pommes Frites, www.pommesfrites.ws

Bark Hot Dogs, www.barkhotdogs.com

Risotteria, www.risotteria.com

S’Mac, www.smacnyc.com

Rice to Riches, www.ricetoriches.com

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