Other than camping out, dining at XV is the closest I've come to eating in complete darkness. The brick walls of the dining room are coated in a thick layer of black paint. The floor is black. The tables and chairs are black. Adding to the cavelike experience, there are no windows except those in front. There are mirrors, which, I suppose, are window-esque, but these mirrors only reflect the color black, providing the same result
as multiplication by zero.
The servers are also clad in black, as is the bar staff, etc., etc. Black, I take it, is IN at XV. Thus, on my first visit, I am decidedly not in. I am wearing a fuzzy wool sweater in comparatively overstated natural tones. I am the anti-XV. Thankfully, the people with whom I dine each have on a little black here and there, a scarf, a hat, some proper black boots. This is our cred.
To lighten things up, I order a crisp Riesling (German, still gothic, dark-implying), and we shout over the dinnertime stylings of random '80s punk singles. For atmosphere, so far, we have aural chaos and visual silence. The Clash at least provide enough melody to carry on a conversation around, so with the aid of strategically placed dining-room candlelight, we toss over the compact XV menu, which, by the way, is tropically themed. At first glance this is unexpected--damn near strange--in a parlor dedicated to the lack of color, but the Rastafied stylings of papayas and plantains somehow do seem in line with XV's opium-den vibe.
We dig the list of appetizers--lots of coconutty things and variously spiced fruita del mar--and we settle on the Jamaican jerk squid with lime mayo ($6.50). The app is slow in arriving and, carefully measured against the candlelight, I can't tell whether the squid is dusted with a reddish dry-rub jerk or whether the chef used a darker, wetter sauce and cooked it in. Either way, it's succulent and not too chewy.
As we move on to dinner the music is mellowed with a bit of D'Angelo and hip-hop. I can hear people talking. For dinner I blindly stab at the Guadaloupean Christophene squash ($12) stuffed with cheddar, spinach and chard and served with black beans and a red curry tomato chutney. This is a rich combo, made even richer by--what is that? Is that butter on the spinach? Cream? It's not until you eat in the dark that you realize how much you rely on your eyes to detect flavor.
What little light is available suggests the squash is an attractive, colorful dish. And even with a hint of ciggie smoke in the air, the squash doesn't disappoint. It feels snappy and fresh, and the greens are not over-cooked. I can taste a lot of salt, but no other spice sticks out.
Our blackened catfish ($14.50) is served on top of a dark, barely discernible banana leaf. The skin of the fish is pan-seared crunchy with a cajun bent that apparently tickles the nose. Strangely, though, it is served with two slender, perfectly deep-fried vegetarian spring rolls and a thick peanut sauce reminiscent of sugary mud with chopped nuts. Both the catfish and the spring rolls (but not the peanut sauce) are well-prepared and worth the expense. But the randomness of the combo leaves me with the feeling that XV makes flavorful, professionally cooked food for black-wearing people who like snacks. And so on our next visit, we decide to experience XV from this point of view.
Around 10 o'clock, a couple of vodka 7s downed, we sit on a large, comfortable, black leather couch and proceed to whip up an appetizer frenzy. First come the coconut onion rings with red curry tomato chutney (same chutney as on the squash). They are large loops of sweet white onions with a batter
of shredded coconut and bread crumbs. These completely hit the spot, the coconut giving them the maximum crunchy skin. Then come the yam cakes with mango relish ($4.50)--a bit daintier than expected but at least savory.
The strangest thing about eating the conch fritters with spicy papaya sauce ($6.50) in near darkness is that they taste just like pancakes and maple syrup. I'm not kidding! Try them yourself. They are almost perfectly the same flavor as a tall stack, except these fritters have a small, appropriately chewy kernel of sea conch inside them that adds something fishy to the mix. I like pancakes and syrup, especially late at night, so I would definitely recommend sampling the conch fritters.
It's in the snack-fest that XV really hits its stride, when black boots can melt into black walls and the booze flows and people can indulge. Dinner, though tasty and made well, is not the priority. There's not enough light to bring the color out of the Caribbean meals.
15 SW 2nd Ave., 790-9090 5 pm-2 am Tuesdays- Saturdays Moderate