Monday, May 21, 2001

An SXential Sensorial Experience

New York is no stranger to new dining establishments sprouting up. Each year there's a slew of new restaurateurs hoping to reign on the foodies in town. This is one industry that independent of market fluctuations sees even more failures than our fledgling industry. However, every now and then there is a notable opener that entices diners and scenesters alike.

Just last week, SX137, named coyly for its address: 137 Essex Street, opened. Already the restaurant has made a significant mark in the neighborhood on several levels. So far it has all the right ingredients for a successful stay: experienced (and nice!) owners and staff, unique design, a delicious and inventive menu, local artists' artwork hanging on the walls. It even has a charitable aspect.

Mike Bollo, who also is a partial owner of the popular NV lounge in western Soho, joined up with Eric LaGrange, who partially owns The Elephant and Casimir, and Alex Sumner, who was a public school computer science teacher for 10 years. Chef John Lhoft worked at The Elephant and Chez es Saada, and has brought his unique flair for tasty dishes with him to SX137. This lounge aims to be a place where people can come for a drink, order a small dish or two, and then go back to drinking (and then go back to ordering small dishes). The menu borrows drink names from area streets and has a "Sumner Roll" named after Alex.

Of course the first thing you notice about SX137 is its façade. The plywood front gives it the appearance of being unfinished, but the illuminated triptych squares with samples of the featured artist hint at something a bit more MOMA-esque.

Designer Harry Allen, who also did the SoHo Moss store and has been in Metropolitan Home's top 20 up-&-coming designers list, was the creative genius behind the façade and the interior. The restaurant is divided into three sections, each materially independent of the other. You walk up the all-plywood, handicap-accessible ramp into the bar. Everything's plywood: the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the tables, the chairs (with black leather tops) and the bar. I felt like I was in a barn. But the drinks are powerfully creative, so no one seems to mind. In fact, you might want to find a bale of hay to mess around in!

After relaxing in the au natural setting, I was escorted back through the mirrored section, where all the walls and ceiling are mirrors. Sorry guys, the floor is made up of charcoal steel tiles, so no visits for you! The stainless steel, mini tables pour deux flip up, and the bar stools can be whisked away if the crowd swells and more bar or dancing space is needed. There most likely is some dancing because the mirrored section borders the DJ area, which is all cobalt-blue formica with cobalt-blue, rubberized flooring. This tiny spot also borders the third and back area, a traditional steak house type setting with wood paneling, round oak tables, brown leather booths, and cherrywood, thick-slatted blinds. "Daily Candy" was inclined to coin it the "Beefsteak Charlie area." This is where most people come back to share six or nine little tapas before heading back front for six or nine crazy cocktails (okay, maybe less).

Just adjacent to the steak-house setting is the luminescent white room. All white walls, floor, ceiling and leather banquette create a serene, ethereal, Asian feel. The white tables can be separated for dining for two or put together for a small diner party of 12. The thick, white-slatted blinds can close, so that you feel transported to your own private Idaho (or Heaven).

To keep patrons movin' and groovin' wherever they are in the establishment, there are speakers in every room, and each night of the week the DJ works with the crowd to set the mood. Even the bathroom, a la Ally McBeal, has speakers. It's worth a trip downstairs - past the hallway with the rotating art exhibit featuring a local artist's work - to the white, tiled-and-mirrored communal bathroom. There are individual toilet rooms, so you don't have to worry about anyone sneaking a peak, but the shared sinks and waiting space are a breeding ground for pick-ups and rendezvous.

All these features add up to make SX137 a worthwhile trip. But the worthiness doesn't stop just at your visit. The benevolent owners have gone a step further by incorporating charitable aspects to the establishment. Sensitive to the fact that not all neighborhoods are thrilled about the prospect of a trendy bar increasing traffic, noise, litter and debauchery in their part of town, the owners set up a relationship with the Stanton Street Settlement's art program. ( Founded in 1999 by Greg Drozdek, this 100% volunteer organization is where indigenous children can immerse themselves in academics, computers, drama and art. In the spirit of this mission, SX137 will donate the proceeds from art sold during their openings to the SSS. Each exhibited artist will donate a quarter of their proceeds to the SSS. I asked Mike Bollo what prompted them to do this, and he replied they "didn't want to come in as another restaurant and 'take.'" They wanted to give back to the community and to be an asset, not only where you could come and enjoy yourself, but also for the Stanton Street Settlement."

From earthy to disco-y to steak-y to heavenly, walking through SX137 is an experience in all five senses. It even touches upon the your sense of compassion. Intriqued? All readers of "The Cyber Scene" get one drink free - just mention "The Cyber Scene."