Borscht, a hearty soup of such humble origins it comes as a free side at Veselka, New York's premier Ukrainian diner, takes the form of a $12 starter at Lowlife, a spendy small plates place helmed by a chef who once hawked 25-course tastings. This is, in theory, a commendable development, as Eastern European cuisine is underrepresented and underpriced throughout culinary world. But when my companion and I place an order to share, the chef hands us a bowl at the bottom of which are three tiny quenelles, of raw cream, beet puree, and trout roe. They are neither hearty nor humble. They result in 1.93 bites per person. They remind me of the time a friend described brodo as "soup without stuff in it," because this borscht was, by contrast, stuff without soup in it.
Make no mistake; it's a lovely composition. Chef Alex Leonard, late of Blanca, has deconstructed a typically liquid borscht into a solid state panoply of colors. The purple puree softens the fish roe's orange oils, while the stark white cream dials down the root vegetable's natural sugars. Yet ... something's not right.
It's not a problem of execution, but rather of naming, pricing, and portion-sizing. Call the dish trout roe and the cost feels semi-reasonable, a caviar course for the masses. Call it borscht, and it feels expensive and tiny, a modernist markup on something grandma used to make in exchange for a kiss. But given how long it takes to consume the creation (about 30 seconds), one wonders whether the soupless soup would be better off as an amuse bouche built into the cost of the meal, where it would feel like a gift, and not something you remember because of its price.
Lowlife embodies some of the high-low tensions of the Lower East Side within the restaurant itself
Value has always been tricky on the Lower East Side, where the exorbitant and the everyday seem to coexist in closer proximity than they do elsewhere in New York. Dirty French on Ludlow sells $15 cocktails across from Katz's, a delicatessen where that much will get you a proper sandwich. Sushi Ko on Clinton offers $150 omakases next to discount nail salons and barber shops. WD~50, the tasting menu venue that introduced so many gourmands to experimental cuisine, closed to make way for $3 million condos, but a discount mattress outlet is still going strong across the street.
Lowlife, located just a block away from the old WD~50, embodies some of these high-low tensions within the restaurant itself; it's set in a space that at once feels like a chic neighborhood restaurant (see the obligatory wine bar, reclaimed wood tables, white pine walls) and a destination chef's counter spot (ten stools overlook the kitchen, equipped with eye-popping combi-oven and binchotan wonders).
Order the yakitori chicken, one of the city's best new poultry dishes, and you can have a rustic meal for about $60 after beer, tax, and tip. Order a bunch of share plates (along with four-ounce pours of wine) and you can drop $125 on a light repast that wouldn't be out of place at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
Here, up front, is Malcolm Gladwell at one table and Ruth Reichl at another. There, in the back, is a young chef from another restaurant, drinking wine, smooching his companion, chatting with the cooks. He walks over and advises me to get the chocolate parmesan ice cream, a dish covered in what appears to be $68 worth of truffles, which is what Masa charges for an analogous creation. Here's it's listed for $14.
So sometimes Lowlife cuts you a break – and sometimes it doesn't, as what you pay doesn't always equate to what you get on the eleven-item savory menu. Fluke with briny hackleback and tart ponzu is the type of safe, flawlessly-executed raw dish one might encounter at Le Bernardin – though perhaps with better caviar. A solo diner can finish the $20 dish in about a minute.
Lowlife's butter-poached lobster boasts a higher level of tenderness and maritime tang than this somewhat ubiquitous dish normally does. But a small claw plus the knuckle and half a tail would feel more appropriate as course No. 15 of 20 during a $235 service-included tasting, less so as just one of three courses for $26 before tip. Waiters sometimes refer the more modestly-sized plates as "delicately-portioned" or "European-sized."
Leonard deserves credit for making such haughty creations more accessible. (After all, it doesn't really matter if the longer menu is the better value if you can't afford it.) But a minuscule portion hidden behind a low price can sting just as much as a compelling luxury locked behind an exorbitant omakase. So if Lowlife continues to offer that borscht a la carte, maybe it might work better at $24 at twice the size.
Want hearty starters? Try the Hokkaido pumpkin, cooked down to the ethereal texture of soufflé. It acts as a sweet foil to buttery maitakes, oyster-laced salsa, and fish-sauce dressed radicchio. Guinea hen, whipped into a chile-laced weisswurst with its own skin as casing, is the charcuterie that Daniel Boulud wishes he were serving; the fluffy, meringue-like sausage soaks up a sauce of the bird's own drippings.
Starches, per the prevailing gastronomic zeitgeist, are rare here. Lamb bolognese ($20) was a filling pasta course earlier in January; too bad it's been removed from the menu. So you end up eating more protein (while trying to fill up on the bread course). And the good news is that Lowlife's pricier mains are more normally portioned.
The skin on a soft black bass fillet is crisped up with its scales intact, Guy Savoy-style, creating a three dimensional effect – all the better for soaking up ethereal aligot foam and earthy matsutake broth. Ribeye cap ($44) feels expensive at eight ounces. But the rich, sweet fats, filet mignon-like tenderness, and unabated beefiness sate the palate more efficiently than a larger New York Strip would.
And the chicken ($32) is why we're all here; Leonard brines the bird for 36 hours, air dries it, oven roasts it, grills it over the coals, and glazes it with everything but the kitchen sink: soy sauce, sugar, lemon juice, lime juice, yuzu, sesame oil, chili powder, and mirin. Don't go in looking for a hefty poultry funk; this is more about fowl as a forum for smoke, sugar, and spice. Gorgeous.
If it's in season, now's the time for that white truffle dessert. Otherwise, consider the apple tart with ginger ice cream, a classic effort in flaky pastry and firm fruit.
Then look at the bill. Or don't. Leonard has given the Lower East a gem, but that value part of the equation isn't quite there yet. Maybe that will change as the restaurant debuts a tasting in the spring for $85. Maybe the restaurant will throw in a series of amuses or petits fours as well. And maybe Lowlife will realize that some of the a la carte portions are just too damn small at any price.
Cost: First courses: $12-$20. Mid-courses:$18-$26. Main-courses: $24-$44.
Sample dishes: Borscht, fluke with hackleback roe, butter poached lobster, guinea hen sausage, black bass with matsutake, ribeye cap, chicken yakitori.
Bonus tip: Best seats are at the chef's counter where all the action occurs.