[Pigging by Wilfrid: July 12, 2010]
"Why should a place as funky, posh, and oddly friendly as the Crosby Street Hotel...have such middling food?" asked the New Yorker this week ("Tables for Two").
Conundra thus bedevil the critic who tries to make consistent sense of New York dining. This tall-windowed corner spot, formerly a bank, more or less catty corner from the deceased Allen & Delancey, is nightclub hell after 9pm. A high-ceilinged, humid room is shoulder to shoulder with people old enough to know better, thumbing their iGadgets and screaming over the music, which is not merely loud but entirely indistinct. A sort of hip rumble descending from the ceiling.
Drink the masses do, to oil their active larynxes, but eat? In the almost two hours I survived the ambience, I saw one man eat a dish of pasta, then pick at some shrimp (he was in a party of four, but the others were content with the white wine in an ice bucket improvised from a metal jug). I also saw one man scale the bar in businesslike manner - stools are about six feet high - and demolish an order of meatballs and mash in short order. I thought I saw menus brought to some tables, but perhaps in error. I saw no other food (it was mid-evening) emerge from the kitchen aimed at anyone but me.
One wonders why the owners bother.
Not only very noisy - dark too (hence the photos). But I could make out the wide selection of seafood itemized with random spelling on the large blackboard. Local and Virginia oysters, local clams, Texan and Norwegian shrimp, Florida stone crab claws, lobster, lumpfish caviar, fish with fins, and a special of hot dogs 'n' beer bringing up the rear. Add to this a fairly lengthy menu of fish and meat dishes with a few Swedish specialties (the white and blue flag of the country flies outside).
There are two seafood platters, priced at $30 and $90, the latter offering a bewildering array of lobster, oysters, grilled shrimp and everything else in the house. Modestly I opted for some Olde Salt bivalves from up Chesapeake way. In addition to a tomato-horseradish ketchup and a red wine-shallot mignonette, a curiously savory herbal condiment was offered. "Soy-pickled coriander," explained the bartender - an Irishman thoroughly versed in the menu; completely in the weeds when I arrived, but apologetic about it. He thought the concoction too powerful for use on oysters, and he was right, but it was tasty. It comes with the seafood platters, and I'd be pleased to dunk grilled shrimp in it.
Some of the Swedish reaches of the menu required elucidation. There was fältkorv, described as a sausage, and by no means named after a member of Abba. I don't know who Pelle Jansson is, but his toast comes topped with a venison carpaccio. I had the other toast, the Skagen, and this turned out to be house-made bread loaded with a sort of shrimp mayonnaise and topped with an orange caviar and a sprig of fresh dill. I really liked the bread which had an eggy texture, and which had been sizzled so fiercely that it had the crisp exterior and almost the flavor of a British breakfast delicacy, fried bread - which is just what it sounds like.
I met the Texas shrimp in the next dish, so I suppose these were Norwegian? Small, flavorful and chewy in a good way - far from the mushy, cottony texture of the second-rate and frozen. A dish with nice contrasts of temperature and texture. I'd waited a while, first for service then for the food to emerge, but despite the discomfort of the tall stool, it was turning out to be worthwhile.
A recent craving for fish and chips, a dish I grew up with but eat no more than once or twice a year, determined my choice of entrée. There's a burger, a cod burger, chops and steak, and a seafood soup which appears from the menu as hugger mugger with denizens of the deep as the platter. The fish fry was touted as varied too, with shrimp, oysters and scallops as well as, well, fish. And this was no understatement. A heap of just fried marine life arrived, combining a hot, noisily crisp breadcrumb crust with precise internal cooking. It sounds easy; it's very rare. There was the Texas shrimp, big as a small banana, head and all (suck it!). There were some impeccable oysters which would have honored a po' boy.
Best of all the scallops, not remotely overcooked, sweet and juicy, and big too (never mind the photo, you see my point?); and I am not such a huge scallop fan. Bewilderingly, the dish was accompanied not only by a hunk of lemon but by a dish of sweet, creamy sauce. But then I seem to recall that it's a Swedish thing to put cream and jam on reindeer meatballs.
The spicy aioli which showed up with the fries was good for dunking the fish too. The fries were thick-cut, freshly cooked, floury. Plenty for two, even three people. I am sure there is wine, but I didn't investigate. The weather had made me thirsty, and Guinness goes with seafood. All around me, cocktails and shots reigned.
Some servers were to be seen, weaving about the room clutching pads, but what they were for I don't know. The kitchen could hardly have been busy. Do people lunch here? What a pity. A genuinely interesting menu rather than the usual recitation of pig parts and vegetables from the greenmarket. Swedish drinking food rarely (ever?) seen in Manhattan, a far cry from the refined global-Swedish cuisine of Aquavit. Fresh, good seafood, served in startling portions for the price - if $18 buys that fish fry, what kind of platter do you get for $90?
And none of the customers seemed to care. "Is there any room in the back bar?" I heard again and again, when they should have been asking "What's in the fältkorv?" I don't know how White Slab sheds its reputation as a moshpit of trendiness where a stuffed caribou fell on someone's head (allegedly), but someone involved in the operation knows food and cares about it. And this food deserves a better showcase.
I can't yet find a website for the place.