Observations from my first visit
Only twice in my life have I been surprised about a PB & J iteration at a restaurant. The first time was about a year or so after Grant Achatz opened Alinea. The first course was a de-skinned grape (I think it was a concord grape because it was supposed to remind us of the purple jelly) that still hung from a stem, and dipped in a peanut puree and lightly cloaked in a super thin layer of brioche–all presented on a custom contraption so that the grape literally hung over the plate. I thought it so brazen!
Suzanne Cupps doesn’t use custom gadgetry to serve her dishes but her cauliflower dish with concord grape caught me by surprise, just as I was over a decade ago. First off, you don’t see concord grape in a dish description that wasn’t part of the dessert course. I was game to try it and I was impressed by the results (detailed below), as I was with almost every vegetable dish I ordered. The comments about the new restaurant focused on roast oysters or the roast chicken but the veggies are what to come for.
Atmosphere and design: The kitchen and wood-burning hearth anchor the restaurant with seating around it, and almost every table is a window seat, given its corner location on Bleecker and Carmine. A unique feature I had never seen anywhere else was the placement of foam under the tables, ostensibly to help dampen diner din. The restaurant’s focus to reduce noise seemed to work as I wasn’t overly bothered. That said, the tables are very close to each other so no amount of noise-cancelling efforts can help drown out overly loud guest conversation at tables flanking your own.
The serving dishes are colored blue, green, orange-red which I find joyous. The lighting is pretty dim on the tables so I couldn’t appreciate the vibrancy.
Menu: The wood-burning grill seems to touch nearly every dish, to great effect. In comparing the menu from its mid-December opening to now, I see slight variations, perhaps nodding to seasonal avails, perhaps adjustments just to change flavor profiles. My sense is that the new restaurant already had some regulars as well as a steady stream of first-time guests.
Dishes: Eater’s Ryan Sutton’s article on the roast chicken is what got me in the door. And I had seen the ‘trend’ piece about roast oysters which Cupps serves. So I ordered both right off the bat.
The oven-roasted bivalves with grated purple daikon, Meyer lemon, seaweed, white soy, and aji dulce hot sauce was tasty — smoky and deep in flavor. The plate comes with four oysters and worth sharing.
The roast half chicken with potato wedges and hot sauce/beurre blanc sauce is very good. The crispy skin is flavored with rub; the meat is juicy and has a smokiness from the grill. The potato wedges are hearty. The two sauces taste wonderful with both the chicken and potato. Thumbs up.
But onto the vegetable dishes were I think Chef Cupps shines. The thoughtfulness around not just flavor, but textures and plain inventiveness. make her a very special chef in my mind.
I will start with the charred cauliflower with concord grape and sunflower butter that I fawned over in the introduction since that is the one that gave me so much joy. As mentioned at the top, it’s a rare chef to use concord grape in the main menu. Her PB&J is au courant as she rotates different nut butters (I had sunflower butter but saw in opening articles that cashew butter was used); and her ‘bread’ is cauliflower, a current popular carb substitute, and the concord grapes are seasoned and made into a sauce. The cauliflower is charred, and the combo of grape and nut butter sauces is amazing. I loved it.
The other vegetable dishes we sampled were the marinated beets with black lentils and fried shallot, and the grilled carrots with hot honey, ricotta and topped with something crispy (the lighting at the table not only dimmed the vibrancy of the colorful plates but had me relying mostly on my sense of taste as I was loathe to whip out and use the blinding phone light). I have to admit that while I like carrots, I rarely order them (and they are usually on the side dish list) but yet again, the grill worked its magic and the carrots were elevated and served not with the usual dollop on ricotta and drizzled with honey but the ricotta seemed smoother and hence more luxurious. The crispy bits on both dishes made each bite fun.
For dessert, we went for the angel cake (which was Japanese cheesecake which is super light), meyer lemon curd and citrus slices (I think they were clementines). Again, a familiar combo but elevated and completely delicious.
Overall: The early reviews focusing on chicken and oysters (which are great) miss Chef Cupps’ prowess and genius. I have never been a fan of the loading of ingredients (which always hits a point of diminishing returns) so the simplicity of fine ingredients, updated and sometimes surprising flavor combinations and textures made dining at 232 Bleecker a true joy. The service was friendly and felt earnest. I can’t wait to go back.
232 Bleecker, 232 Bleecker St, New York, NY 10014