Inside the beast of the belly

While Americans weigh their sordid desire for Taco Bell taquitos against the video scurrying around the Internet of rats in a Greenwich Village KFC/Taco Bell, I’ve been wrestling with some culinary demons of my own.

You see, the “Rats Gone Wild” video — filmed in February, broadcast around the world, and reportedly causing a Health Department crackdown on establishments as diverse as Bubby’s in DUMBO and the Vegas Diner in Bensonhurst — got me thinking about one of my favorite restaurants, which had its own stomach-plunging fall from grace.

The year was 2005, and the restaurant was Cafe Lafayette, on South Portland Avenue and Fulton Street.

It was my restaurant of choice for those languid Sunday mornings, frosty winter evenings, and all sorts of weather patterns in between. I liked the garden floor’s tin-ceilinged coziness, the friendliness of the waitstaff, and the reliable French fare.

But then, state Sen. Jeff Klein (D–Bronx) issued a report listing my beloved boite as one of the 10 dirtiest in New York City. But before I could accuse the Bronx lawman of throwing stones in his own glass house (I mean, the Bronx? Really, Jeff), I learned that the Health Department had indeed written up for Cafe Lafayette for “inadequate hand-washing facilities,” “evidence of/or live mice,” “flying insects in food areas,” and “dirty food contact services.”

My favorite restaurant was finally shut down on May 30, 2005.

I stopped going. Until Monday night, that is.

You see, all that rat hysteria got me thinking about my old haunt. Thinking and clicking around on the Health Department’s Web site. There, I discovered that the Cafe’s descent into restaurant purgatory had been short-lived. By August 2005, the Cafe — with a new owner — was back in the good graces of the inspector, who found “no violations that present a threat to the public health.” Cafe Lafayette’s most recent inspection, in October 2006, yielded a few minor offenses, but none warranting a shut-down.

Now, it’s important to note I’m a squeamish eater. My brother still thinks it’s funny to say that I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t like vegetables. So, when I approached my once-beloved storefront this week, my stomach churned (with anxiety).

The restaurant looked much the same as it had two years back, which was oddly reassuring. But the menu had been beefed up. Sure, there were the Cafe staples — the goat cheese salad, the chocolate volcano, the carrot-ginger soup. But there was also a host of more expensive entrees, from an $18.50 sirloin steak to a $16.95 seared tuna with soy anise sauce and asparagus.

I stuck to my guns and ate a veggie burger with fries. I won’t bore you foodies with my disappointment in the veggie burger (yes, it is actually possible to distinguish between a good and bad veggie burger), but I will say that my fries were excellent, my waitress lovely, and my glass of Pinot easy to imbibe.

As I sat at my corner table in the surprisingly packed room and toyed with my salad, I heard the sounds of dishes being washed in the back. I grew more comfortable. I drank more wine. And I reconciled with Cafe Lafayette. My self-imposed exile was over.

So, my advice to all you Taco Bell lovers is to stay strong. Your restaurant probably won’t get a new owner (but hey, a new CEO might boost confidence), but it, too, will rebound from its days of ignominy. Soon enough, you’ll be able to eat your cheesy bean and rice burrito with nary a stray thought about rat feces. (Though, I’ve gotta say, a stray thought about those 1,200 mg of sodium wouldn’t kill you.)

The Kitchen Sink

Some eyebrows were dancing recently, when the Jelani Lounge, on Waverly Avenue and Fulton Street, announced a new drink called “the Preemie Martini.” Turns out, the drink — an apple martini in a miniature glass — is owner Guy Soley’s tribute to his son, Jelani, who was born premature, but has since grown up into a healthy and strong lad. That made the “preemie” joke fair game, Soley told us. …

Hair of the dog, anyone? In a tacit acknowledgement that nothing beats a good hangover like more drinking, the Greene Grape is now open at 10 am on Saturdays. L’chaim! …

Myrtle Avenue eatery Jive Turkey is the latest New York food shop to deliver delicacy-filled care packages to wounded New York veterans recuperating in Texas. “Hopefully we are sending the message that New Yorkers are thinking about them, and hoping for their speedy recovery,” said Aricka Westbrooks of Jive Turkey. …

Hot for teachers: State Sen. Hakeem Jeffries wants your kid to have more face time with his teacher, so he’s proposing that at least one-quarter of an expected $2-billion windfall in state education funding go toward reducing class size.

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