Brain food on a budget.
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Hart Lounge

734 Park Boulevard, East Village

For all the talk in the past few years of East Village having become someplace worth being — with upscale restaurants, condo developments, an urban ballpark, and a big new public library – it's got a long way to go to come close to the cachet of its Manhattan namesake. Certain parts may be flourishing, but at roughly 130 square blocks, it's downtown's largest neighborhood, and the bulk of it still sits relatively empty, ignored. Especially outside of baseball season.

I've gotten used to going blocks at a time without so much a glimmer of something to eat. Even driving down Park Blvd, a major street that should, by anybody's estimation, have a lot going on. Imagine my surprise to find a spot serving organic fare, just kind of hanging out there a little too near the 5, between F and G, away from the cool kids' tables.

The lower-case h stands for design students.

Actually, what caught my eye were signs advertising sandwiches, beer, and a weekly open mic. Whatever else may be going on in the area, live music's rarely a part of it, so it warranted checking out the space.

Now it turns out, the New School of Architecture and Design being across the street is no accident, and the place was put together by alums as a convenient hangout for students. Consequently, inside you'll find a mish-mash of contemporary furnishings, student artwork, lots of right angles and a rainbow of technical pens for sale at the counter. I wouldn't exactly call it a slick design scheme, rather a smattering of ideas added upon one another as funds became available.

Which kinda lends to the comfortable, student-friendly vibe. It's the sort of place you see people having long earnest conversations over coffee and snacks. I suppose the only word for it would be collegiate, since this sort of thing rarely seems to happen outside academic circles.

Their mural beautifies the gravel (permit-only) parking lot next door.

The menu reflects student interest as well, with choices ranging from nachos and burritos to flatbreads and sourdough paninis, including no shortage of vegetarian options. But for all the inclusion of house-made hummus and organic ingredients, the thing that really wins you over is the price.

I settled on a $5 organic chicken panini and bottle of beer, then realized I had plenty of cash leftover for a hummus starter (at a whopping $6, the menu tells you it's a 'platter' and meant for sharing). The sandwich taste good enough — nothing spectacular or huge, but a couple of ticks better than any fast food alternatives and certainly worth the cost.

The real treat was that hummus platter. Again, the hummus was good, but nothing special. What made it work were the vessels with which to eat it: slices of cucumber, carrot and celery; toasted sourdough quarters and olives. It offered a freshness, a lightness and healthiness you just don't come by in barely-there urban quarters, in a part of town long considered a food desert.

As a student, I would have enjoyed a lot about hArt Lounge. As a working man, I can truly appreciate what the place is bringing to the area. Because sometimes you're driving through an empty part of town late at night, and crave something wholesome and cheap, with big ideas to wash down that beer.

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