Brunch is kind of a shitshow at Prune," a friend told me recently, and I really couldn't have cared less because I don't eat brunch. I can make my own eggs.
But since many New Yorkers primarily know this East Village mainstay for its Dutch pancakes and such, I forced myself out of bed at noon on Saturday and taxied over to Gabrielle Hamilton's famed restaurant. Standing outside were 26 souls, almost the full capacity of the venue, waiting for a chance to eat eggs Benedict. The weather was 42F. Not bad for a fifteen year-old spot.
This solo diner was accommodated within ten minutes, next to a trio of patrons who said they waited over an hour for bar seats. The bloody marys, of which there are 11, were awesome — tart, spicy, and, if you throw in $2 for a jerky swizzle stick, beefy. Then, for an improvement upon the pedestrian fruit plate, Prune turned a plain navel orange turned into something magical with vanilla and rose water — impressive and aromatic. Finally, there were butter fried eggs coated in breadcrumbs and flanked by spicy stewed chickpeas. It's not the type of dish you'd make yourself in the morning; in fact you'd probably pay good money for it in the evening. Maybe there's something to this ritual known as brunch.
It's all a reminder that Prune has aged well, very well. In a city that eats up and spits out new restaurants with brutal efficiency, this decade-and-a-half hangout is as relevant as ever, serving up fare that sometimes rivals that of Ignacio Mattos's in vogue Estela. Spend thirty minutes shredding your braised rabbit leg into a pool of spicy, sticky, andouille-studded gumbo and you'll know what I'm talking about.
The space is still as quirky as ever. A Tribe Called Quest plays on the stereo. Waitresses, wearing red lipstick and pink shirts, pour pink cocktails (New York sours). And like at any reputable construction site, vintage glassware sport full photos of topless women.
It's all par for course for Hamilton, a chef with an MFA who likes to say fuck more than most hospitality folks do, no small achievement. She's not on Twitter, though she's managed to gain a certain amount of national prominence in recent years the old fashioned way: by writing a best selling memoir laced with stories of drugs, divorce, and crime (dropped charges of grand larceny as a teenager). But what really makes her stand out among the world of celebrity chefs is the fact that she has just a single restaurant in this empire-building era.
And that's too bad because we could use more of Hamilton's affordable creativity, even if certain dishes have never changed, and likely never will. The fried sweetbreads are still the best in the city, with creamy white interiors and a dense, brown crust. Most folks compare these organs to fried chicken, but Hamilton's thick-cut offal has the taste and texture of good French toast. The sweetbreads sit in a pool of caper butter with bacon. Breakfast indeed.
Prune is an original American bistro that's impervious to trends.
Some might accurately call Prune a mix of Italian, French, and Spanish cuisines. But the better way to explain the restaurant is as an original American bistro that's impervious to trends. It manages not to serve pizza, ramen, tacos, quinoa or any other dish that would draw the attention of people like me who who take multiple pictures of their dinner. There are only four entrees: Rabbit, trout, lamb and squab. They're all $32 or under and they all can feed two.
Belt-loosening lipids are the hallmark of Hamilton's food and she uses them as copiously as Paula Deen. Escarole with anchovies contains so much EVOO you could surely pour the leftovers into a bottle and sell it in Brooklyn as salad dressing. Pan-fried trout isn't so much about the flavors of fish flesh as it is a study in rich beurre noissette and unctuous piscine skin, as crisp as the exterior of a roast chicken. A whole head of cauliflower looks healthy. Sorry, the soft root is drenched in raisins, breadcrumbs, and more brown butter.
Such preparations can border on feeling like a Dean & Deluca raid, but it's all so awesome that Hamilton somehow manages to pull them off.
Even a pre-appetizer bar snack turns out to be a full fledged cheese course — thick slices of funky Garrotxa cheese that you place over buttered bread (for salt and substance) red onions (for balance), thyme (for aroma), and more olive oil (which cleanses the palate). Call it an unusually delicious menage a trois of fat. Such preparations can border on feeling like a Dean & Deluca raid, but it's all so awesome that Hamilton somehow manages to pull them off. One of her most famous appetizers, after all, is sardines on Triscuits, and one of her best desserts is just shaved dark chocolate over bread and olive oil.
Sometimes Hamilton's riffs on classics don't quite work; her noodle kerchief, with ham, parmesan, and egg, one of Prune's most heralded dishes, is simply a watered down, deconstructed carbonara (with under-salted pasta, no less). And sometimes the riffs are epic breakthroughs. A special of fried chicken livers was slathered in what might've been the world's finest non-wing use of Buffalo sauce, its vinegar tang cutting through the irony notes like a sharp samurai sword through a bad guy's flesh.
Skip the overcooked lamb blade chop and go right for the squab. The bird's charred juicy exterior and parsley dressing tone down the interior's livery tang. Want more funk? There might be a heart lying about the plate.
Order milk punch for dessert, which is apparently a Hamilton code word for a lot of rum and brandy with a bit of frozen dairy. It's seriously boozy and seriously rad. And it's all proof that Prune remains the destination neighborhood spot it's always been, simple enough for regulars but ambitious enough to merit a trip across town. But that does mean you should wait an hour for brunch here? I think Hamilton would agree with me when I say, fuck no.
Cost: Starters: $7-$14; mains: $17-$32.
Sample dishes: Fried sweetbreads, rabbit leg with gumbo, pan-fried trout.
What to drink: New York Sour cocktail, Lambrusco, beer.
Bonus tip: If things get too crowded at brunch, try Estela or Joe & Misses Doe nearby.