If you were planning on dining at the repository for beautiful people known as Le Turtle, a French spot that's too cool to name itself after the actual French word for turtle (tortue), you might be inclined to browse the menu beforehand, online. Good luck with that. The restaurant's website looks simple enough, black text on a pink background. Then you click on the name of the restaurant and you enter a weird, wacky, R-rated visual labyrinth.
As you scour around for the bill of fare, clicking randomly on four Illuminati-like symbols that jump around the page, you're shown a variety of movie clips on autoplay, including one of a woman slapping away an unsolicited ass grab, the trippy finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a man using his hands to crush someone's face as if it were cheesecake, a massive orgy, and that famous scene from The Holy Mountain where a Christ-like figure sits on a clear glass pot, preparing to do something not normally discussed in conversations of restaurants. (You might also also witness full frontal nudity, though in all my clicking, I only found it of the female variety — restaurants, like cinema, seem to shy away from naked men.)
The act of eating dinner at Le Turtle is just one small component of experiencing dinner at Le Turtle.
Eventually, though, you find the menu, and as the website zooms in on the jewelry-adorned, well-groomed nether region of woman in wartime regalia, you might start to wonder if the kohlrabi bisque is any good.
It is quite good. The potage, nominally vegetable-oriented, is fortified with ham stock, chicken stock, and cream. It coats the tongue like warm custard. Grilled cabbage leaves and fatty lamb belly sit on the inside edge of the bowl, forming a crescent moon around the soup. You mix them in as if this were a savory bowl of greek yogurt. And then you notice a woman in stilettos and a sleeveless black dress headed toward Le Turtle's bathroom, carrying a clutch-sized, cream-colored canine. "It's a service animal," the manager explains, seeing your look of surprise, and shakes his head in resignation. The service dog, it should be noted, is wearing a rhinestone collar.
It is precisely at this moment, on this corner of Manhattan's Lower East Side, in a restaurant a few doors down from a gallery exhibiting drawings of naked women in monster masks, that you realize why the restaurant's owners — Taavo Somer, also its designer, and fellow bearded dude Carlos Quirarte — make the process of getting to the online menu so hard. The act of actually eating dinner at Le Turtle is just one small component of experiencing dinner at Le Turtle, an eye-popping spectacle of a modern Gallic restaurant, where the allure of one of the city's best chickens for two is outdone only by the allure of spying on your dining room companions via giant two-way mirrors mounted just outside the restrooms.
Dining out in post-recession New York isn't quite the exuberant theater it once was. Chefs doubling as restaurateurs often do away with the comforts of yesteryear, like maitre d's - and occasionally dining rooms. An exciting restaurant today is more likely to look like an experiment in making high-end cookery more accessible, whether that be in the form of a stadium-sized food hall, a lean tasting counter, a cheap fast casual spot or, increasingly, an expensive hangout that still feels like a cheap fast casual spot (but we'll talk about Nishi soon enough). That is to say, the fun at a restaurant in 2016 isn't the majestic space around you, or the pageantry that unfolds, but rather the food itself: a temporary, edible replacement for your iPhone. Fun, right?
Such stripped-to-the-bone shenanigans help explain the success of high-minded theme park-style venues popping up here and there; we're relieved to shell out a few extra dollars for dinner at the Goodfellas-esque Carbone, or the Talented Mr. Ripley-esque Santina — we're happy to pay a few dollars extra for a meal that can feel as immersive as a Martin Scorsese fever dream.
That's not a new idea, though its relative rarity might lend it some freshness. Somer caught on to the importance of letting design speak at a volume as loud (or louder than) the cuisine long before the Major Food Group started dressing their waiters as lounge singers and cabana boys. In 2004, he gave New York Freemans, a year-round hunting lodge-taxidermy party, which he followed a few years later with the Rusty Knot, a worn-down nautical dive slinging inauthentic tiki drinks, and then Isa, a self-parodying Brooklyn restaurant famous for its erstwhile vinyasa yoga sessions and puppet-making classes for kids during brunch.
The restaurant is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Lower East Side gallery district in which it sits.
Under Somer's direction, Le Turtle is equally aware of its message. The 60-seat spot, on the blisteringly trendy corner of Chrystie and Rivington, is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Lower East Side gallery district in which it sits: neon light fixtures, waiters in oversized painter jumpsuits, Francophone hip-hop on the sound system, a cozy VIP room lined with still more two-way mirrors, and bathrooms with convex black glass fixtures that never quite give a full reflection of yourself, no matter how hard you look. And there's that performance-art piece of a website, too — now it all makes sense.
Like the art scene it reflects and exaggerates, Le Turtle prioritizes some things, and disregards others. Customers arriving to dine at the restaurant might be overlooked by the hosts for ten minutes before eventually being greeted with a hello. Coat checkers might come back at the end of a meal with only half a party's coats. Leather banquettes in the rear have backs to the seats; corner booths by the windows do not. This is troublesome if you value comfort, but it's fantastic if you want the pedestrians — or is it the audience? — outside to have a clear line of sight to the back of your designer t-shirt.
These ignominies will infuriate some, but might float right by others. Those who keep an open mind will be rewarded for their trouble with dinner at what is, ultimately, one of the city's most satisfying new venues in which to consume (or watch others consume) smart French fare.
A torchon of chicken liver, bereft of any bilious tang, does its best impression of foie gras, practically spreading itself over sourdough baguette. A trio of housemade butters further richen the affair: one is plain and tangy, another is laced with burgundy snails, the third with pork fat. Grilled squid hangs out in a shallow pool of lemon juice, garlic, white wine, and just enough pungent fish sauce to hint at Southeast Asia. Shelled cockles have their brininess checked by a palette of bitter parsley sauce, (undercooked) parsley root, and sweet grilled lemon; the bright hues of green and orange evoke Halloween in February.
The kitchen at Le Turtle is run by Greg Proechel, formerly a sous chef at the critically beloved Blanca in Bushwick. (He's the second Blanca alum to open an ambitious Lower East Side restaurant in the past four months. Lowlife, run by Alex Leonard, is the first — a coincidence that suggests that the Bushwick tasting menu establishment could easily follow in the footsteps of Per Se as one of the city's next marquee manufacturers of well-pedigreed chefs.)
Proechel is an assured cook, proficiently alternating between rustic and refined preparations. Over here is a braised lamb shank with carrots and squash, a perfectly executed study in sweet aromatics and gamy meat. Over there is a lobster poached in citrus butter, an intelligent essay in tabletop condimenting: you can pair any given bite with a selection of chervil, Asian pear, pickled aji dulce pepper, almond curd, lobster coral, or tarragon dust. I recommend using the creamy curd to tame the flavor-packed claw, which tastes of clean ocean water raised to the hundredth power.
Not everything is an artistic triumph. Wagyu short rib (with nasturtium soubise) should be silky and fatty; instead it packs as much heft at supermarket chuck. Better is the mushroom bowl, a riot of yellowfoots, maitakes, hon shemejis, and black trumpets. They're roasted in goat milk butter, placed over an oyster-brie emulsion, and finished with black truffles and chanterelle salt; a triple Lindy approach to amping up the earthy stink. Cost: just $28.
And then there's that holy chicken for two. It's a nearly unparalleled affair, even now in our city's current golden age of poultry. The Sasso bird (also a staple at Lowlife), is a red-hued, lean-breasted, slow-growth fowl hatched in Montreal and raised in Pennsylvania. Served in a brief explosion of flaming hay, it's been brined by the kitchen for 42 hours, dried for three days, cooked with steam, and roasted at three different escalating temperatures to crisp the skin and render the fat. It all results in an ornithological analogue to dry-aged beef: the breast, thigh, wing, neck, and drumsticks all burst with haute-barnyard aromas that swing like the 70s from funky to smoky to sweet. And the skin, my fellow model-DJs, is worthy of a course in itself, packing a declension of textures ranging from gelatinous (like pork belly) to chewy (like jerky) to crispy and crunchy (like a chicharrón).
Finish off with something simple, like chocolate sorbet; the kitchen takes an intensely fruity caraibe varietal and spins it to the texture of toffee. Or end with something deceptively simple, like a hazelnut financier — the traditional brown butter cake comes with everything but the kitchen sink: chile-spiked pear puree, chocolate feuilletine, noisette crumb, olive oil, lime powder, lime salt, and Greek yogurt. Then watch in awe as someone in a v-neck dress that opens down to the navel (think J-Lo at the 2000 Grammys) descends down the concrete steps from the mirrored VIP room. At Le Turtle, dinner comes with a show.
Cost: Starters: $6 (bread)-$29 (butter-poached lobster). Mains: $29 (mushrooms)-$49 (chicken for two).
Sample dishes: Cockles with grilled lemon and parsley butter, kohlrabi bisque with lamb belly, Maine lobster with almond curd, lamb with delicata squash, whole Sasso chicken for two.
Bonus tip: Use the Reserve app to book a table, and skip the often-unanswered reservation line.