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Weekend Getaway

Call it New York's meet district

Restaurants and other hot spots are cutting in on butchers' domain

Email|Print| Text size + By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2004

NEW YORK -- A gaggle of 14-year-old girls heading for the trendy store Scoop squealed in horror and grabbed one another when, directly across the street, sides of beef slung on hooks slid from the rear of a truck and thudded toward a waiting butcher.

Such are the contradictions of New York's fastest-growing hipster destination, the Meatpacking District, where latte-toting hordes en route to velvet-roped restaurants and boutiques selling $300 jeans routinely step across rivulets of blood and fat that are scrupulously hosed from the sidewalks by workers in red-stained smocks.

The once-bustling Gansevoort Meat Center, opened in 1949, has lost many of its plants to Hunts Point in the Bronx. Weekend visitors in the district today are spared the raw meat and gore, as the 25 remaining businesses are closed Saturdays and Sundays. The stench never quite leaves the cobblestone streets, though, and it lingers beneath the wafting perfumes of the weekend crowds.

That said, if you're ready for superb food in exotic spaces, galleries exhibiting challenging work, boutiques selling the newest and brightest, and nightlife that carries on to dawn, the Meatpacking District is worth exploring.

Technically, the district runs south from 14th to Gansevoort Street, and west of 9th Avenue to Washington Street. Glossy foldout maps of the area, available free in many places, list 24 restaurants, five galleries, four hotels, and 45 shops and services that spill over these boundaries to adjacent streets.

The restaurant 5 Ninth is an example of 19th-century charm, with 21st-century style. Open since May, this quiet haven in a renovated three-story brownstone, with six fireplaces and an outdoor garden, has created a buzz with its innovative food. Chef Zak Pelaccio has a menu inspired both by his travels to Italy, France, Kuala Lumpur, and Thailand, and by the regional foods available in New York. (He's also involved in Slow Food New York City, which supports local farms and artisans.)

On a recent visit, the Noodles Raja Chulan was ambrosial: Wide rice noodles and tender lobster meat were warmed by a spicy and sour coconut broth, spiked with galangal flowers. A flavorful lime-chili paste with green papaya was a perfect match for a delicate steamed whole sea bass.

Don't forget drinks before dining. Cocktail historian David Wondrich has researched forgotten classics and created a menu for 5 Ninth that includes the Ace of Clubs (with rum, lime juice, crème de cacao, and Angostura) and a 1930s treasure called Junior (rye whiskey, Benedictine, lime juice, and Peychaud's bitters).

The other must-try food destination is Jean-Georges Vongerichten's newest venture, Spice Market. You'll need a reservation, even for lunch, as the Asian street-food-inspired menu draws crowds of food lovers and the curious, celebrities and celebrity gawkers, hipsters and poseurs. The vast wood and silk interior has a movie-set feel, perhaps of a Vietnam or Bangkok hotel circa 1930.

Servers hustle past in orange rust ensembles -- the women's are backless -- designed by Vivienne Tam. Dining is upstairs, overlooking an active bar and lounge scene below ground level.

After a spicy pork dish with cumin, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and red chilies, and an order of chicken samosas with cilantro yogurt, you may be too full for dessert, but force yourself to order anyway. The pastry chef, Pichet Ong, has simple but stunning offerings such as a rich and bitter chocolate and Vietnamese coffee tart, or the colorful and slushy Thai Jewels, made with water chestnuts, brightly colored tapioca, and coconut ice.

The later the livelier in the district, with limos and taxis, and pedicabs unloading passengers by the dozen. One reason for the area's explosive popularity is its low residency rate; noise levels are tolerated here without an uproar. That is why it was also a popular spot for prostitutes and transvestites, who are now getting booted from their favorite haunts.

If you like nightlife, you'll find several lounges, clubs, bars, and restaurants with live music, DJs, and dancing. Level V, downstairs from the popular Vento Trattoria, gets hopping at midnight and goes strong till 4 a.m. The vibe is hip and cozy, with a low ceiling, brick walls, blue lighting, candles, and 1950s furniture in the main lounge. Vaulted nooks, originally horse stables in this 1830s structure, provide private lush spaces away from the crowds, though they must be reserved. DJs mix techno, hip-hop, '80s, and funk as an ambient background for high-concept cocktails for a 20- to 30-something crowd.

For some Latin exuberance, try mojitos and dancing at Son Cubano on West 14th Street. The rear dining area has a feel of old Havana, with a colorful tiled wall on one side, and a long wood bar on the other. The tables are removed after 11 p.m., and DJs play a lively salsa mix. Join the crowds and dance the night away alongside billowing white curtains beneath crystal chandeliers.

Ara, a small wine bar on 9th Avenue, is an oasis from the uproar. Ananda Ellis, and her siblings Rehana and Ari (thus the acronym Ara), opened this modest establishment in April last year.

Their heritage, half Indian, half Russian and Romanian, is reflected in the interior decor of warm colors, fabrics, and cozy banquette that rims the mirrored back room. The ambient music is ethnic-loungey, perfect for relaxing with one of 50 wines available by the glass. If you want a snack, the cheese platter offers an Italian Piave, a Spanish Garrotxa, and a dreamy Epoisses from France.

In the daylight hours, there's plenty to do. Shops have sprung up in every other nook and cranny, as well as in streamlined showrooms. Bring your credit card for clothing at Stella McCartney, lingerie at La Perla, Corbusier chairs at Design Within Reach, or handmade men's clothing at Thom Brown.

There are also a few galleries; whether they've expanded north from Soho or drifted south from Chelsea it's hard to say. Heller, Casey Kaplan, and Wooster Projects, to name a few, sit among the high-end boutiques and butcher shops.

Last, there's the magnificent Hudson River, with its renovated waterfront park and jogging paths. Glimpsed between buildings, just beyond the West Side Highway, it's a reminder of New York's identity as a port city, built by immigrants who arrived by boat, and the ever-changing vitality of a place in a constant flux of reinvention and renewal.

Necee Regis is a freelance writer who lives in Boston and Miami Beach. She can be reached at neceeregis@yahoo.com.

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