I never give jukeboxes much thought one way or another, though I don't think I've ever seen one in a white-tablecloth restaurant or any dining room that serves escargot. I can't even remember the last time I was tempted to put money in a jukebox. That is, until the day I popped into The Drop, a tiny two-room cocktail lounge with a video jukebox boasting more than 10,000 clips.
"We actually have access to 50,000 videos," the restaurant's co-owner, Ernesto Peralta, explained. "But some of them we don't want to play in here, like the ones with violent imagery or obscene words in the lyrics."
Well, I'm all for that. I'm totally opposed to obscene language, unless I'm using the dirty words myself. And as someone who came of age before the MTV era, I don't give a rat's ass pardon the vulgarity about watching music videos while I eat. But if I want to talk and eat at the same time, as I did on my first visit to The Drop, for a late supper with Ned and Franklin, the noise from those damned videos is annoying. At our request, Peralta turned down the volume just as our cheese plate arrived and Ned screamed, "It's anorexic!"
Let's just say it wasn't an elaborate display of cheeses. Rather, it was a square, white china plate with a dainty jumble of goat cheese in one corner, a few slices of smoked mozzarella in another, a wee wedge of brie to the left and a petite pile of gorgonzola on the right. Garnishes were a spoonful of green tomato jam, a few grapes and a handful of toasted pistachios.
Ned was much happier when his wedge salad arrived or at least its component parts. Again, there was iceberg lettuce in one corner, pancetta crisps in another and a little heap of gorgonzola in another. Ned didn't mind assembling the ingredients, but he hated the creamy gorgonzola dressing. With a sniff, he pronounced it "forgettable and unlovable."
OK, so The Drop didn't score with jukebox-hating Ned. But I was intrigued enough by the concept and the food created by Peralta and Eddie Crane, two former Capital Grille bartenders, that I returned.
The music videos held no allure for me. In fact, on the afternoon that I was lunching in the storefront saloon with Jennifer, Louise and Bob, I barely looked up at the little TV monitors. Not even when 1983's "Billie Jean" came on, showing a young Michael Jackson who still looked remarkably human. But the videos are an inescapable fact of dining at The Drop. As Jennifer was telling us about coming to this same location last year, when it was the Buddha Bar, Bob blurted out, "Look, it's Nancy Sinatra!"
Not coming in the front door, unfortunately. We all raised our eyes to watch Frank's daughter, dazzling in those white go-go boots, black miniskirt and a flip hairdo sprayed stiff as granite, singing her 1966 hit "These Boots Are Made for Walking." The black-and-white clip was an unexpected ingredient in that day's post-1980 mix. An odd choice but kind of tasty.
Similarly unexpected are many of the ingredients in The Drop's limited collection of starters, salads and sandwiches created by 25-year-old chef Josh Eans. At first glance, he seems to have a fondness for toasted pistachios, smoked salmon, artichokes, portabella mushrooms, pancetta and roast beef. A closer look at the menu reveals that Eans artfully uses these ingredients in a variety of dishes. Smoked salmon, for example, can be eaten as a starter (with candied beets and orange-fennel salad) or atop bruschetta. The smoked mozzarella shows up on the cheese plate, a bruschetta, and two of the seven grilled panini sandwiches.
It's a clever way to run a tiny kitchen Eans isn't working in the better-equipped space used by former tenant Café Trocadero (which operated out of the west side of this building and is now a sports bar). Instead, he's in a cramped room with few cooking appliances. "I do everything with a convection oven and a panini grill," Eans explains.
Knowing that gave me a new respect for his menu, which is a little too creative at times. I applaud Eans for finding a way, in his primitive kitchen, to caramelize squash for the creamy butternut-squash soup he serves, but what sounds luscious on the menu is jarringly sweet on the spoon. After tasting it, Louise whispered that it was too heavy on the organic maple syrup: "It tastes like melted ice cream." She was right. I would have preferred the gingery concoction if Eans had served it as a frozen dessert.
Our salads arrived as Donna Summer was warbling "I Feel Love" on the TV monitors. Bob felt love for his Caesar salad, made with an uncut stalk of heart of romaine and almost enough focaccia croutons to leave a trail from The Drop to Loose Park. Jennifer, however, wasn't enamored of her field-greens salad with slices of tart green apple, dried cherries and two of the more ubiquitous ingredients in Eans' pantry: toasted pistachios and goat cheese. She thought it was very good until she ate all the accessories and was left with only a jumble of vinaigrette-splashed greens.
The real stars at The Drop are nine bruschetta choices: For $12, diners can select four from the list. The bread arrives attractively displayed on a wooden plank, each hunk of ciabatta sliced into four bite-sized pieces. Louise loved the salmon version, sprinkled with snippets of purple onion. Bob, the heartiest eater in our group, gave highest praise to the bruschetta topped with tiny slices of roast beef and bits of gorgonzola. The fig-and-goat-cheese combination was sticky-sweet but tasty. The apple-brie variation was excellent, too.
Also a bit endearing were panini sandwiches, made with Farm to Market bread and modestly filled, in seven combinations, including a sinfully rich grilled cheese and a "PLT" made with crispy pancetta, oven-dried tomatoes and basil aïoli. But I couldn't bring myself to order anything described as a "dessert panini," especially one filled with marshmallow and peanut butter.
Mercifully, there are other options prepared by Eans' wife, a pastry chef named Abby Jo. She doesn't put out a full-scale dessert tray, just a couple of memorable sweet options. That day's choices were a soft apple tart in an envelope of flaky pastry and a miniature honey cheesecake topped with a crispy, round tulle cookie and a confit of fresh pink grapefruit. Our little quartet made them disappear faster than Toni Basil's MTV career.
Josh Eans wants to serve real entrées at The Drop someday, perhaps when people stop thinking of it as a bar and start seeing it as a neighborhood bistro that serves stylish food until midnight. And Nancy Sinatra whenever you want her.