A ghost haunts 1809 West 39th Street. Not a menacing poltergeist but rather the generous spirit of a Great Depression-era farm wife. Anna prepared home-style dishes for her family and anyone else who dropped by the old property.
That's the story I've managed to piece together in four visits to the new Anna's Oven restaurant on 39th Street. There's a photograph of Anna in the restaurant, and a shadow box displays one of her spoons. It's either a tarnished old piece or a holy relic, depending on which employee you're talking with about it. You see, no one working at Anna's Oven — except, perhaps Anna's great-grandson Luke, who works in the kitchen and doesn't seem to say much — really knows the story of Anna.
I suppose I could call Ruth Dakota, the granddaughter of the restaurant's namesake and one of the investors in Anna's Oven, to get the exact story of the woman who inspired this four-month-old dining spot. But, no, I kind of like the Rashomon quality of each response to the question "Who was Anna?" She lived in Minnesota, one employee told me. No, it was Kansas, another said. The menu reports that Anna prepared her meals during the Great Depression, but a server told me one night that her cooking peaked in the early 1900s.
The heartwarming tale of generous, grandmotherly Anna is trotted out primarily in service to this restaurant's distinct mission. This isn't just a place to eat but also a forum for raising charitable contributions. Once Anna's Oven is more financially stable, the plan is to donate 50 percent of its profits to educational charities. (Its first project: a girls' school in Kenya.)
But there haven't been profits so far. "The restaurant isn't covering its costs yet," says Ling Chang, owner of Genghis Khan Mongolian Grill and the Blue Koi and also one of the co-owners of Anna's Oven.
I wonder if it ever will. Anna's Oven, where customers order at a counter and are served their meals at the table, has a limited — very limited — menu of dishes, and the prices are ridiculously low. The most expensive entrée on the menu costs $10. On a recent night, my friend Bob had the three-course special — salad, pasta and a dessert — for $8. This at a time when upscale dining rooms charge $8 and more for just the dessert.
Here's the part where I must be a little uncharitable, though. Bob got what he paid for when he ordered that cheap meal. It reminded me of something I could have thrown together for friends on a Sunday afternoon: a nice little green salad, a modest portion of macaroni and cheese with roast chicken, and a fruit cobbler. (Wait — I have served that meal, at least to myself.)
The Anna's folks aren't kidding when they stress that this is a home-style dining experience. There are fewer than a dozen tables in the place, and several are made to be shared by people who didn't arrive together. When the restaurant opened, it used disposable plates and cutlery, until the customers complained. "We're in transition now," explained the engagingly friendly manager, Jamie, who handed me a plastic knife so that I could butter my slice of yeasty focaccia from the Bagel Works bakery.
Most of the serving pieces now are real china, and metal spoons and forks are offered, but the chilled roasted-tomato soup I ate the other night (it was very good) was served in a Styrofoam bowl. Yeah, I know that doesn't bother a lot of people, but Anna wouldn't have liked it.
Since that first visit, when only the price wowed me, I've sampled just about everything on the menu, and I liked almost everything I tasted. The menu offers a few salads, and the dressings include a delicious herbal vinaigrette. (Like the other dressings, though, it comes served in a little plastic cup — a touch that's more clinical than cozy and earns another presentation demerit.) The four variations on lasagna include vegetarian and gluten-free versions, and there also are several macaroni-and-cheese options.
Now, I had a Depression-era grandmother, too, famous for her chicken and homemade noodles and layer cakes, and I can assure you that lasagna was not in her repertoire. She also wouldn't have prepared macaroni and cheese with anything as exotic as radiatore. But the chunky, rippled noodles at Anna's Oven are a good choice for the thick, creamy cheese sauce — cheddar, provolone and American — spread over them.
The chicken and noodles are house-made, in a heavenly broth (though the noodles I tried were too feathery), and the meatloaf dinner is solid and old-fashioned. This is uncomplicated comfort food, served in big portions. So if the microwave that's humming away in the kitchen somewhat dispels the myth of a gingham-clad Anna toiling benevolently to make a hot-food oasis in the Dust Bowl, well, that meatloaf really is pretty good. The roasted fresh vegetables served with meals are excellent, and the mashed potatoes — Yukon Gold spuds whipped up with milk and butter — are better than anything my grandmother ever made.
The restaurant makes two versions of rotisserie chicken, the better of which is the fragrant, mahogany-brown 10-Spice bird, moist and succulent and deftly seasoned. The blend, manager Jamie says, is secret, but I detect the aroma of ground ginger and, perhaps, a little savory. It's one of the best dishes on the menu.
The featured dessert always seems to be a crumbly cobbler made with blueberries and pineapple — an interesting combination of sweet and tart but a shade gummy. Better is the chocolate sheet cake with the sugary cocoa glaze, which evokes a simple church-supper dessert. It's delectable with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Anna's Oven is less a traditional restaurant than an inspired idea: "Let's open a dining room that serves hearty, inexpensive meals and raises money for charity!" And at these prices, you could almost call it Mother Teresa's Oven. It's the only restaurant on 39th Street where picking up a fork really is an act of charity, which makes its eccentricities a little easier to forgive.