The practice isn't unheard of at popular casual restaurants. You've finished your main course and the server asks, "Would you mind very much?" The small space is packed with customers, and they'd like to free up the table for a new party, so you wind up your meal with complementary desserts and drinks at the bar. A small upheaval, but ultimately everyone's happy.
At Goblin Market, a new American bistro in SoHo, the routine is much more streamlined. When a friend and I showed up for dinner at 7 on a weeknight, the restaurant was two-thirds empty, but still the host warned us sternly that we'd have to vacate our table by 8:15. When the cutoff time came, many tables were still empty, and nary a free drink had been offered, but we were hustled out just the same. A week later, astoundingly, an optimistic second visit was met with the exact same bum's-rush treatment: Unsmilingly, unapologetically, we were given a tight deadline to choke down our dinner and then shooed out of the decidedly uncrowded restaurant.
When I've been politely reseated at, say, Tia Pol, I'm quick to forgive the inconvenience, since the rest of the experience is outstanding. Goblin Market has no such excuse. Its food sticks to a one-size-fits-all formula — which is refreshing, in a way, after so many restaurants that impose a top-down concept on the customers. But SoHo is not exactly starved for crab cakes and steak frites. And the interpretations are hardly superlative. This sort of fare should present little challenge to a chef like Richard Pelz, who has established his skill at La Caravelle and most recently at Tintol, but perhaps it bores him. The opposite of market-driven, a small starter of steamed mussels ($10) comes festooned with pale, out-of-season tomato chunks. Nobody in the kitchen even bothered to pick out the four dead, unopened mussels from my bowl before serving it.
There are relatively few such low points, but also few highs. A shrimp risotto starter is one of the latter ($13): Its firm, succulent rice grains, bound together with plenty of lemony cream, hardly need the tender little shrimps that add color to the dish. A version of chicken potpie ($8), whose herby, chunky filling is capped with a fluffy golden shell, tastes fully of real chicken.
Hanger steak ($18) might be the best of the main courses. A miso marinade keeps the meat tender and salty, with a sturdy crust, but for flavor it's overshadowed by the ginger dressing on the side salad. A smaller portion of the same steak and salad is offered as a $12 starter. A quartet of large scallops ($22), with a good sear and a dousing of curry spice, isn't bad either, although the tangy, slightly cloying sauce seems to have been composed along lines of color rather than taste: with not just the curry's turmeric, but also saffron, lobster, and orange-flower.
The thin, limp crab cakes ($24) include plenty of crab, which gives them an appealing texture, but their taste owes more to mayonnaise and bread. They're served on an "heirloom tomato salad," whose absence of flavor serves as a watery reminder of just how far gone summer is. An osso buco ($24),made with lambs' delicate little leg bones instead of calves' meaty, marrow-filled ones, lacks both the tenderness and the flavor that should come from long cooking. Its taste is dull, and a dusting of citrus zest on top provides a jarring contrast rather than the wanted acidic pique. Apples give sliced pork tenderloin ($18) a cidery tang. (It's almost seasonal!) A crisp lump of pork belly fat nestles alongside it in the creamy whole-grain mustard sauce.
Liquor's role is prominent, with a dozen whiskeys and a dozen vodkas enumerated on the reverse of the dinner menu, along with several fruity cocktails in the $12 range. Sparkling wine tinged with elderflower ($10) makes a delicate, distinctive refresher, but a wealth of fine beers, including Wychwood's rich Hobgoblin ale ($7), are best for washing down the meal. Diners who leave (or are made to leave) before the dessert course won't miss much, although a tea-flavored panna cotta ($8) with pomegranate seeds is refreshing, and a pear-ginger streusel ($9) comforting.
In the Victorian poem from which the restaurant takes its name, goblins sell fruit so luridly appealing that after one bite, the eater pines for more. The most memorable taste that Goblin Market leaves is a sour one from the inhospitable service. When a place goes to such lengths to make it clear that they don't want customers, I for one am glad to oblige.
Goblin Market (199 Prince St.,between MacDougal and Sullivan streets, 212-375-8275).