At dinner time, Eleven is psychotically loud. It's as if the management fears that quiet equals failure, and that customers aren't really happy if they aren't bellowing and gesturing at each other across the 3-foot expanse of a table for two. My friend and I tried briefly to make conversation while remaining in the upright position, but the only way we could communicate was by simultaneously leaning forward. It must have looked as though we were having an argument, or passing state secrets. At other times, I would look from table to table, watching people's mouths move animatedly while Gloria Gaynor blared on the too-excellent sound system; it looked like the entire clientele were doing a bad job of lip-syncing to "I Will Survive."
Lunch is entirely a different matter. Instead of frenzied night energy, there's sunlight and a cafe calm that's not dull. The menu, while similar, is briefer and somewhat less expensive. It's possible to have a real conversation, and everyone doesn't look like they've just finished a shoot for a Gianni Versace spot. It's as if two strikingly dissimilar restaurants occupy the same space: a Jekyll and Hyde effect.
It's an attractive space, with wrought-iron stairs ascending to the mezzanine and a huge bar against one wall halfway back, backed by a mirror in a rich wood frame. The only disappointment is the commanding view, through the large front windows, of 11th Street, which is hardly the city's loveliest thoroughfare. Perhaps Eleven should follow the example of Mecca and hang the windows with some sort of translucent blinds that admit light while filtering out the usual urban hideousness.
Eleven opened several years ago as Undici ("eleven," in Italian), but that name was found to be confusing and difficult to pronounce and was translated. But the food remained Italian, until a change of ownership (one of the new partners is Steve McPartlin of Channel 2's Mornings on 2) late last year brought a number of Californian and American twists to the menu.
We began our lunch with what I feared would be yet another rendition of that tired warhorse, fried calamari ($6.95), but the dish turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The rings and tentacles had been seasoned, not dipped in batter, then lightly sauteed instead of deep-fried. The result was tender calamari, with just a hint of chewiness -- perfect for dipping into the soy-based Chinese sauce served on the side.
My friend's roast-lamb sandwich ($7.50) was a disappointment, despite the tender meat and a pile of good frites on the side. Eleven's focaccia is lovely, but the sandwich featured too much of a good thing, and the mint aioli spread on the bread was a nice-sounding idea that had a peculiar taste and didn't work.
The shrimp creole ($8.95), on the other hand, was brilliant: sauteed prawns arrayed in a ring around the plate, with a deep, rich tomato sauce studded with capers. It was one of those sauces I mopped up every bit of with bread from the conscientiously replenished plate that had been set down, along with water, when we were seated.
A dessert of apple cake ($4.75) didn't much appeal to me (apples are for pies!), even with garnishes of caramel sauce and white-chocolate gelato. But the cake turned out to be fragrant and moist with fruit. Not too sweet, either. It would have been fine on its own. The gelato was a subtle touch, catching and holding that elusive flavor of white chocolate. (Is white chocolate, such a rage in the 1980s, making a comeback? It seems to be a favorite flavoring for gelato lately.)
A sunny, serene lunch left me unprepared for Eleven's assaultive evening liveliness. We were shown to our table under a disco bombardment, and, much as I liked the songs, I felt like crouching under the table until the noise subsided. Our server leaned in smilingly to announce the specials, and we both listened and carefully studied her lips, to make sure we'd understood.
Louisiana crab cakes ($7.95) numbered three, each about the size of a croquette and pretty thoroughly fried. My friend thought they were too oily (and kept reaching for my quichelike artichoke and roasted-garlic tart [$6.95] with white truffle oil and watercress) while I thought that they tasted intensely of crab. A caper-dill remoulade (basically tartar sauce) didn't do much to lighten things up. That job fell to the pile of nicely dressed mixed greens on the side.
Pan-roasted chicken breast ($13.25) puffed up awkwardly and turned a bit tough in cooking. It would have worked better pounded into a paillard. But the smoked-mushroom risotto was wonderfully strange, and it imparted deepness and shadow to the nearby tomato sauce.
The nightly pasta special was farfalle ($10.95), sauced with shiitake mushrooms, sausage, and marinara sauce -- an honest and simple preparation lacking that special twinkle. Even so, it was swiftly and completely eaten, the wide, shallow bowl wiped clean of the last traces of sauce.
Yet another little bowl we scraped clean had reached the table containing mango creme brulee ($5). My heart sinks a little when I see creme brulee on menus these days -- yet another one! -- but Eleven's version, though not tasting much like mango, was a smooth, firm custard topped with a thick layer of broiled sugar and (the real treat) a pile of vividly red macerated strawberries in a neat dice. Promise of spring to come.
It is rare that the street is quieter than the adjoining restaurant, but stepping out of Eleven onto 11th Street was almost like entering a sensory deprivation chamber -- eerily peaceful, and a reminder that everything is relative. Even noise.
Eleven, at 374 11th St., serves lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. until 11 p.m., and on Friday from 11:30 a.m. until midnight. On Saturday, dinner only is served, from 5:30 p.m. until midnight. Call 431-3337.