While attempting to distance himself from onetime friend and longtime colleague chef Gabrielle Hamilton, New York Times critic Pete Wells simultaneously fanboys over the Prune owner and Times columnist in his latest review of the longtime East Village restaurant. He starts off the two-star judgment with a pile of disclosures about how he and Hamilton have both worked and played together but haven’t in a while. (His interactions these days with Hamilton are limited to him drooling over the writing in her column.)
With that out of the way, Wells delves into the 18-year-old restaurant itself — now a fixture in the East Village dining scene — ultimately concluding that its success is in its confidence and the stripped-down cooking from co-chef Ashley Merriman.
It is confidence that gets you unshowy desserts like slices of black plums tossed with sugar, lemon zest and cardamom and spread out on buttered toast, or a bunch of Concord grapes lounging on a plate of chipped ice.
It is confidence that lets some servers wear pale pink crew-neck T-shirts and others V-necks of a riper, fleshier pink. Confidence that helps them thread through tables that are by anybody’s standards too close together; confidence that allows them to treat every customer, the ones who look like actors and the ones who look like retired semiotics professors, with the same attention and care.
It is confidence that lets this French-looking bistro with its much-put-upon marble bar and fuzzed-up mirrors play Yo La Tengo one night and Whitney Houston’s greatest hits on another and still believe that somehow it will all mean something.
Dishes he recommends include Turkish disco pistachios, which are set on fire — pictured below — the Parmesan omelet, roasted lamb ribs and skordalia, grilled branzino with fennel oil, smoky eggplant with sesame flatbread, black plums on warm buttered toast, and lemon semifreddo. Avoid the artichoke and shell bean ragout, he says. Two stars.