330 Park Boulevard, East Village
As much as I love the new Central Library and kinda go “Wow!” every time the bus or trolley I’m in rolls under its beautiful dome, I’ve never gone inside. And the reason is just plain ridiculous.
It’s that the café they built into the library courtyard never actually happened.
Always liked the idea that you’d go up off the street and into a coffee-aroma’d plaza around a café with people at tables among the orange bougainvillea chatting or burbling in deep conversations about Kafka, Kant, and okay, Caitlin.
Instead, a dead, concrete no-man’s-land.
That’s what I thought till I just happened by, around seven in the evening. Noticed one gate still open. Security guy says, “Poetry reading?”
“Uh, no,” I say.
“Music, quartet on the eighth floor?”
“Well, then, sorry. Library’s closed for the day.”
Except, fact is, now I’m noticing lights in the kiosk and a sign that reads “OPEN.”
“Can I go see if they have a Blue Plate Special?” I ask.
“Ah, okay,” he says.
So, I hop up the steps and into the courtyard. Round of applause ripples out from the Neil Morgan Auditorium, where the poetry’s going on.
I head for the kiosk.
I can see someone in a red apron cleaning up inside. She notices me. Pokes her head through the sliding window. Norma. “We’ll stay open while there are people here,” she says. “Anything you like. We mainly have sandwiches, but we have hot dishes like a turkey lasagna and a Marco Polo pestollini. Library staff here like them.”
Oh, yes. See the items on their electronic screen menu. “Ben Franklin’s Turkey Lasagna, served with salad and a slice of bread.” It involves ground turkey, lasagna noodles, onions, and parmesan cheese. Costs $7.50.
Ditto the pestollini. But what really interests me, have to say, is a couple of quiche dishes. I know, I know. Real men don’t eat quiche. Remember that book by Bruce Feirstein? Maybe if I called it an egg and bacon pie, not quiche. Whatever. They have a Popeye Spinach one and a Jane Austen. Also $7.50 each.
I go for the Jane Austen. Man, so glad I did. It has bacon, sautéed garlic and onions, eggs (of course), plus cream, and gruyère, swiss, and parmesan cheeses all in a pie-dough crust. And it comes with salad and a slice of bread, for $7.50. I get a coffee ($1.85, and 75 cents for a “same-day” refill), and head for the first free table. Huh. It was donated by Liz Bernal and Suzanne Latour. Little metal plaque in the middle says so. Every table has a different plaque.
Real men may not eat quiches, but I swear every lumberjack would change his tune if he came here. This slice is thick, squishy inside, crispy edges, a nice balance of pastry and egg-bacon. Salad that comes with it has tomatoes and cucumber. All fresh, even at this time of day. So is the slice of multigrain bread.
“We get this from the Living Room people,” says Norma. “Beat Wick started that place. He is European. Everything he makes is tasty. We have an arrangement to take their hot food.”
It turns out her family used to run a traditional Chinese restaurant in Bonita. The House of Nine Dragons. “There were nine of us children in the family,” she says. “For over 30 years we ran that. We grew up in it. We finally sold it, and then, well, this came up. My sister, Diana Mar Jip-Chuh, made a bid and won. But we wanted things to be more relaxed for us here, so we made the arrangement with Beat.”
So, yes, that first visit was the charm. But now, few days later, here I am, back for a second take, in the leafy shade of courtyard trees on a sunny afternoon. I came partly because last time Norma sounded so keen on the eggplant sandwich when I was dithering. I love eggplant. I’ve kept thinking about it each time I pass by.
Menu says the sandwich is “breaded eggplant, pesto and cheese with romaine lettuce, tomato, and mayo.” Costs $6.50. And you get a bag of chips.
I like that it’s with pesto, not the usual tomato combo that Italian eggplant dishes come in. And I like that you don’t see much of the florid purple color of their skin. Because eggplant is a fully paid-up member of the deadly nightshade family. Kissing cousin to the potato, tomato, tobacco. And that purple egg-shape looks like just the kind of plant Lucrezia Borgia would use to eliminate her enemies. In Italy, eggplant’s known as “the mad apple.”
But it’s still delicious. (Why “eggplant”? The shape reminded people of goose eggs, back in the day.) When the sandwich comes to today’s table (the “Dr. Robert & Marcia Malkus”), it is two big slabs of sourdough, separated by a slice of eggplant. All you see is that evil purple skin. But open it up and...man. Oh-so green. That’s the combo of the pesto Norma’s spread on the mad apple and a large, crisp leaf of romaine lettuce. It’s a cheesy-squishy combo in there that’s so filling.
But even though real men don’t eat quiche, I think I’d go for that Jane Austen over this sandwich next time. The bacon bite, the crust’s crunch, the eggy squelch. Can’t be beat. For me, quiche is ba-aack!
And so will I be. Meantime, figure I might just go inside for the first time, see if I can find me an actual Jane Austen. I know. Real men don’t read Jane Austen. But I’ve come this far, haven’t I?
Prices: Zucchini nut bread, $1.95; breaded eggplant sandwich (with pesto, cheese, romaine lettuce, bag of chips), $6.50; Ben Franklin’s Turkey Lasagna, $7.50; pestollini (cheese-filled tortellini with pesto), $7.50; Popeye Spinach quiche, $7.50; Jane Austen quiche (bacon, onions, egg, salad, bread), $7.50 each
Hours: Monday–Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday, 12:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.
Buses: 11, 901, 929
Nearest bus stop: 11th Avenue at K Street
Trolley: Blue Line, Orange Line
Nearest trolley Stop: Park and Market