Woody Allen, who was once a regular, no longer comes here. Back then the space was home to the legendary Elaine’s, which closed in 2011, a year after the death of owner and official greeter Elaine Kaufman. That same year the restaurant, rechristened as The Writing Room, reopened. And if the address has failed to resume its previous life as the nightly haunt of celebrities, screen writers, and curiosity seekers, it is now home to good food — an ingredient that was sorely lacking in its previous incarnation.
The main dining room (the one to which you enter from the street) is loaded with memorabilia that seems to hark back to its former life. The black-painted walls are festooned with black-and-white photos, some presumably of Elaine’s customers, and tools of the writing trade — an old-fangled manual typewriter and the like — are on display. Tables are tightly packed and on the smallish side. If your four-top orders plates to be shared, there is much rearranging of bread plates and water and wine glasses.
My biggest gripe, however, is the menus, which are printed in a font meant to simulate the output of one of those ancient typewriters, with letters appearing cracked and/or faded. Trying to decipher the contents can be a bitch, especially in the perpetual twilight that envelops the space after dark.
That menu leans heavily in the direction of seafood. There are baked clams among the starters, and they are superb. You get a half-dozen sweet and tender bivalves dressed in garlicky bread crumbs, set above a shallow pool of white wine and herbs. You’ll be glad there is good bread to dip up the sauce once you have dispatched the hot seafood. Two lengths of Portuguese octopus come handsomely charred, nicely complemented by a tangy Cerignola olive chimichurri.
Usually spaghetti and meatballs appears on menus as a draw for kids, and while you will see children eating here, you also see grownups ordering the spaghetti house staple. You’d be wise to follow their example. The sauce is done with San Marzano tomatoes, brightened with carrot, garlic, and onion, and the meatballs will stand up to the orbs produced a half mile downtown at The Meatball Shop — which is saying a lot.
Pappardelle are mingled with a rich, slow-cooked short rib ragu which is rendered richer still by a dollop of creamy mascarpone.
Branzino is artfully executed, the skin crisp, the flesh falling into tender tufts at the slightest prodding of your fork. The fish arrives immersed in a brodetto thick with braised butter beans and leeks, accented by a quartet of Manila clams. The dish is completed by generous spoonful of saffron aïoli, which comes close to gilding the lily.
Don’t miss the apple berry crisp. You are served a cake-like wedge of the sweet, which consists of a thick compote of the fruits sandwiched between layers of buttery and crumbly pastry. The dessert is marred slightly by the accompanying ramekin of vanilla ice cream, which reaches you rock-hard. I haven’t seen the term chocolate blackout cake since my Brooklyn days, where the name connoted a crumb cake layered with chocolate pudding. The cake that goes by that name at The Writing Room is a more-or-less well-made conventional chocolate layer cake with icing between the layers — for which I, for one, am grateful. As with the crisp, you’ll need to allow time for the ice cream to thaw.
Price range: Appetizers, $13 to $17; main courses, $21 to $36 (except for steaks, which run from $32 to $58); desserts: $12.
The Writing Room is open 7 days for dinner, and Sundays for brunch.
The Writing Room, 1703 Second Avenue (at 88th St.), 212-335-0075.