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I was initially put off by the word "Catering" on the Prince Street Cafe sign -- not the most alluring word for a hangout -- but now I'm thinking this may be a ruse to keep crowds out. Not the smartest business plan, perhaps -- but on the eastern edge of Prince Street, it doesn't hurt to scare off a few all-day café-loungers. They tend to spread and cling to this neighborhood like a tropical virus, albeit a well-dressed one. Yes, I'm jealous.
The staff still seemed a little under-trained when I walked in yesterday morning, day three of the cafe's life (26 Prince St.; 212-343-7310). But a quick check of the pastries made me think this place holds promise -- much more so than the panini joint that appeared and disappeared here in a matter of weeks. The straight-from-the-oven sticky buns cried out to me -- they often don't -- and turned out to be all the right things: nutty, gooey, bouncy. A croissant was buttery, flaky joy. I'll be returning to try the bostock (brioche baked with almond cream, toasted almonds and apricot jam) and to investigate the casual savory menu that co-owner and former One if By Land, Two if By Sea chef Gary Volkov put together: burgers, house-smoked sturgeon, Ukranian borscht, couscous salad. (Volkov opened this place with Café Boulud alum Konstantin Prokoshyn.)
Another promising sign: The mellow front and back rooms exude that lost-morning-in-a-café feel that's bizarrely rare in Manhattan, despite the huge constituency for it. Volkov told me that's what they're going for: "Somewhere not so touristy where people can hang out, relax." I've always loved the hidden little back-room in the back of Ceci Cela on Spring Street, but with just a few tables and a mildly claustrophobic feel, it doesn't really fill Nolita's café-bakery requirements. Cafe Gitane is always packed and unconducive to spontaneous visits, except around 9 a.m. Caffe Falai can be fabulous, but maybe a little too fabulous (in its sparkly gorgeousness). So I'm rooting for Prince Street Cafe to stick it out, at least until the New Museum opens around the corner at 235 Bowery in December. If more places like this haven’t materialized by then it will be impossible to get a cup of coffee in Nolita without a reservation.