A palace for the idle

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  Lucca Café was designed by one of New York City's most famous restaurateurs, Brian McNally (who refused to have his picture taken)

Brian McNally pushed through the front door of Lucca Café at midday, rubbing his eyes behind a pair of Ray Bans.

No one expected him to come in today.

After a little more than a month in business, the staff know little about him. No one in the building understands that their boss (who refuses to say his age) once controlled the most sought-after tables in New York City.

As one of New York's most legendary restaurateurs, McNally palled around with Joan Didion, partied with Andy Warhol and cracked wise with John Belushi.

Last month, when he opened a restaurant in downtown Saigon, few people noticed.

McNally was born the son of a dockworker. He grew up in a poor suburb of East London and dropped out of school at the age of 16.

In 1969, he and his brother, Kieth, took off to see the world. They slept in Greek caves, hung out in Bangkok before it blew up and accepted dinner invitations from strangers in Tehran.

Keith migrated to New York first in the mid-seventies and Brian followed. They both took entry-level jobs at restaurants in New York's Greenwich Village.

In the ensuing years, the McNally brothers built a multi-million dollar empire of high-end restaurants in lower Manhattan. When they stopped speaking for a number of years, they ran their own wildly successful restaurants "” places that became the stuff of legends.

In 1989, Vanity Fair declared that Brian had reigned as the "undisputed King Midas of downtown eateries for nearly a decade."

Christina D'Souza, the author of the profile (entitled "the Life of Brian") described McNally as an authentic, lusty "autodidact" who was frequently better read than his highbrow clientele.

The piece quoted Christopher Hitchens admitting that he worried about bringing women to any of McNally's eight restaurants, "in case he caught her eye."

The author of the article doubted that he would ever quit, despite his insistence that what he really wanted to do was nothing at all.

"The idea of not working is fabulous," McNally told her.

In 2008, McNally had his dream come true. Divorced and downtrodden, he relocated to Ho Chi Minh City, swapping notoriety for anonymity "” and the simple pleasure of having beautiful women wash his hair.

"I moved here because I was bored to death with New York, because of the sobering realization that even if I live to 80 I still don't have that long to live, and also to some extent because of a general sense of personal failure," he wrote in a piece for Vanity Fair.

The magazine referred to him as their "Man in Saigon."

Though he was contracted to write six installments, McNally only produced two.

"I ran out of things to say," he says.

In his second entry, published six months later, McNally reaffirmed his decision to emigrate by heading back to New York to make fun of everyone living there. Despite its snark, his essay, entitled "You Can't Go Home Again," closed on a positive note.

 "I still get a tremendous thrill from being in Saigon," he wrote. "From walking through the streets and markets, from trips to the remote mountain areas, and from the general sense of living in a country that looks to the future that has chosen not to forget the past but not to fetishize it either."

McNally did a great job of describing the feel of Saigon.

He painted the traffic, for instance, as a daily wildebeest migration needled (only slightly) by a handful of crocodilian traffic cops.

What he really captured, however, were the joys of whiling away one's days in cafés ("the virtue of reading disguising the vice of sloth") and taking in a good hair wash massage ("like waterboarding but done affectionately").

He missed a few things, like the existence of pimps and organized crime, which he reported as being nonexistent or insignificant.

But, when asked about the details last Sunday, he dismissed everything he had written as "rubbish" "” just something he'd cobbled together at the request of his friends at Vanity Fair between hours of pure leisure.

"Doing nothing is brilliant, isn't it?" McNally asked clutching a pink Times of London crossword puzzle and a print-out of an article about Ezra Pound.

It was, I agreed. Especially at Lucca Café, which feels, at times, like a vacant palace built for inactivity.

The comfortable chairs in the café help prop you up for reading; the soft booths in the upstairs dining room allow you to melt into oblivion.

The menu "” crisp panini, fresh salads and bowls of delicate pastas covered in crumbles of hard cheese "” lets you forget you are in Asia.

But the best thing about the place is its Americano, a mug of rich espresso served with a pitcher of hot water, a pitcher of steamed milk and a pot of sugar cubes that invites you to spend all day drinking it.

McNally opened the trattoria in the shadow of the Bitexco tower after an extensive gutting of a converted French Colonial building that once housed Flow Restaurant.

The old master injected the place with the colors and feel of the library in a fabulous mansion.

A fat bar occupies both the ground floor café and the enormous upstairs dining room, which seems to continue rather than end in wide mirrors that reflect the muted mural of early 20th century Americans waltzing on a rooftop.

Last week, the space was frequently empty of all but a congenial pair of identical twin waitresses, one for each floor.

Despite his claims to idleness, McNally continues to exhibit a perfectionist's unease. Elegant blue and grey patterned tiles manufactured by a company he established and then handed off to an employee busy the floors.

He runs a hand over his face as he speaks, recalling some of the finer moments of his life. At times he is grinning and engaged, at others bored and focused on a broken pair of reading glasses he turns over in his hands.

After a little over a month in business, McNally has already become disenchanted with the feel of the downstairs café and is mulling a renovation.

"It's sort of grim at night," he said. "I wanted to have two spaces but I don't think you can. It's not the kind of thing you want to walk through on your way up to dinner."

Saigon, too, has lost some of its appeal and McNally imagines he'll split 2013 between here and Havana.

After buying me a lunch of spinach and ricotta ravioli he gathered up his reading and headed for the door "” bored, it seemed, with me as well.

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