The premises on a dead-end block of 5th Street in the East Village has been a revolving door for restaurants over the years. Notoriously, it was Le Gamin, a French joint of no particular merit, then Kuboya Ramen, a meritorious noodle shack that never found its constituency — mainly because a beloved ramen-ya was already next door. The double storefront has been spruced up with (what else?) Edison light bulbs and bare brick, and to adumbrate this last detail, distressed white window frames have been hung in front of sections of brick wall — which is probably the view you already enjoy from your tenement apartment. Industrial spools have been painstakingly hung on one wall like organ pipes, but the entire effect of the décor is nil. Which is fine, since décor is not the point: The food is shockingly excellent, and I didn't find single dud among the dishes.
The chef is Thomas Chen, who worked previously at Eleven Madison Park, and during your meal he's likely to step out of the kitchen to do a little gastro-bow. That happens when the octopus is served, a single curling tentacle, not only tender but cooked to a golden shade that makes it glow like a piece of jewelry. It sits on a gravel of pork x.o., the "x.o." designating a spicy seafood sauce that originated in Hong Kong, here turned illiquid, as financiers might say. As the dish arrives, the chef does as well, wielding the kind of device used at college parties to dispense whippets of nitrous oxide. Instead, the thing is filled with fingerling potatoes and brown butter which pulse onto the plate as a foam. Chen then wordlessly turns on his heel and departs.
This sort of delight is incorporated into every one of the starters. In early September there was a watermelon salad ($12). Ho-hum, you might say. But this watermelon salad puddled red cubes redolent of American picnics with creamy ricotta sauce, bombarded them with the Roman grain called farro, and topped each one with a baby chrysanthemum leaf, Japanese-style, enfolding several centuries and continents in one culinary construct, suggesting the last lazy days of summer. No, Chen does not feel compelled to squirt soy sauce on everything. Later the dish was replaced by a beet salad — three varieties tossed with five-spice yogurt and quinoa. Usually, when I read the word "quinoa," I leap up from the table and run. But in this case, the pompous Andean grain has been toasted to crunchiness, and I guarantee you'll scrape up every last morsel.
Usually, when I read the word "quinoa," I leap up from the table and run
The menu is a mercifully brief document, allowing the small kitchen staff to concentrate on perfect execution. Other apps, two cold and four warm, include deviled eggs ($8) in which the whites have been panko-crumbed and deep fried, a moist scoop of chicken liver mousse sided with crisp chicken skin, and a soft-shell crab illogically but deliciously presented with burrata, proving that burrata goes with nearly everything.
There are but five entrees, and if you are not dining alone, your eye will linger on the last one, called "pig out (for two)." The first time I tried it, the price was $58, which seemed a little steep. The second time, the price had been reduced to $49, and the quantity of food increased. Now I can unqualifiedly recommend: Go for it! At either end of a long slate pointed toward both diners is a generous bowl of thick homemade noodles with an updated Chinese peanut sauce. ("A little too sweet," objected a friend one evening, "but otherwise great!") Arranged along the middle of the plank are two rows of pork belly paving stones, burnished-skin-side up, with an arugula and persimmon salad running in parallel, like a hedge along a country road. There's a bowl of oily ginger condiment and a squirt bottle of homemade chile sauce. The entrée is a participatory delight, and muy sabroso.
More solitary mains include chicken swatches atop a heap of rice in a congee-meets-risotto move ($23); an ample cube of gravy-drenched beef rib with sweet potato puree, a dish you may wish you had this coming Thanksgiving instead of turkey; and scallops with foie gras sauce and baby carrots. Really, you could pick dishes at random off the menu and be not only satisfied, but wowed as well. When was the last time you had a meal that was not only delicious, but visually and intellectually exciting?
Photographer: Daniel Krieger