Date Night: Arcane
Arcane, and we mean this in the best possible way, is decorated like fruit. The ceiling and one wall are the purple of a Concord grape; the other walls are the greenish half of a ripe mango skin or made of brick, rough textured as a stem. The color scheme is but one way the East Village restaurant exudes its bona fides as a Caribbean joint. Additional ways include liberally poured rum drinks, reggae on the stereo, vaguely abstract and erotic paintings, and felt dolls hanging from sticks.
On a July evening, a group of regulars sat at the small bar and spoke French with the brother and sister who own Arcane. Plunked down on wooden benches beneath ceiling fans, we selected some items from the prix fixe, three courses for $19.95, daily from 5 to 7:30 pm, and some off the regular menu. We relaxed, safe for a while from the humid, olfactory assault known as summer in New York City. Our molecules realigned most pleasurably.
The chilled coconut and cucumber soup ($5) was 100% pureed and 120% refreshing. Alas, the glass was too small to get into and swim around in. The soup sighed about its main ingredients, rather than shouted about them, so that the overarching taste was one of creamy milkiness. Squirts of the lime brought out more of the astringent notes.
Our other appetizer, papaya and mango salad ($8), proved as cooling as the soup. Shreds of crunchy papaya got intimate with slick cubes of mango, both fruits doused with a sweet-spicy vinaigrette that wouldn't have been out of place as a dipping sauce for chicken fingers or beef skewers.
So, we'll concede, the mixed greens beneath the shrimp, avocado, and hearts of palm salad ($12) might be available at your local Gristedes. Here's another minor complaint, which makes us sound like the judges on Top Chef: there wasn't a place to put the shrimp shells. (Tuck them on the plate, and they slid into the salad. Put them on the table, and that's just gross.) These minuscule issues notwithstanding, how was the salad? Quite good actually, dressed with a light vinegar, topped with barely grilled shrimp, a mix of melt-in-your mouth softness and chewy solids.
The colombo de porc ($15) grew on us. On first glance, well, we looked away. Browns and oranges and tired greens do not pretty eating make. But we closed our eyes, swirled the redolent sauce around, and started chomping. Arcane spotlights the melange that is Creole cooking, and this house specialty provides the ultimate mystery for culinary detectives. Just try tracing the origins. Curry comes from India, sure, but the tubers and unctuousity of the meat speak to West Africa. Whodunit? Howdunit? Whendunit? Or you could shut up and eat it, which is what we eventually did.
Just as we were preparing to go back into the heat, mentally processing where we could stop to cool off on the long journey home, our chef's choice dessert arrived—the final part of our prix fixe, as opaque and cool as an ice floe. As he set down the blanc manger coconut ($6), our server called it a "foam," but "pudding" or "panna cotta" would have been more apt. It quivered slightly as we dove in, the coconut wonderfully overpowering, topped with a tart whorl of strawberry sauce.
Arcane only takes Amex and cash. Several nights a week, the restaurant offers drink and food specials along with live music. As we left, the dolls turned in the almost-breeze coming up Avenue C, revealing photos of smiling people that had been stapled on. We left happier than we'd arrived. With its relaxed atmosphere and fun food, it's best for: a date on a different island.
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.