[Pigging by Wilfrid: June 2, 104]
Describing a restaurant as "Blue Hill lite" sounds demeaning. But finding a new venture in Greenwich Village, sourcing products direct from a local farm, and pushing them through the kitchen of a talented young chef doesn't sound too bad, does it?
Especially when the result is less expensive and more accessible than the Washington Place Blue Hill, let alone Stone Barns. But there's yet another restaurant which needs to be mentioned before we get to Blenheim (which, for those who can't wait, is very good).
That would be Gwynnett Street, of course, now risen from the ashes as gastropub The Lachlan (also reviewed here today). Chef Justin Hilbert comes to the Blenheim via WD-50, Blue Hill (yep), and Gwynnett Street, where he earned two Times stars before moving on, shortly before things went pear shaped. Gwynnett Street is where Hilbert put his style on the map, so comparisons with the Blenheim are inevitable.
The cuisine here still encompasses careful compositions--neat strewing, as we call it in these post-tweezering days--and there's nothing rustic about it. There is, nevertheless, an emphasis on framing ingredients rather than technique; an emphasis which surely springs from the restaurant's direct link to Blenheim Hill Farm, owned--like the restaurant--by the Smörgås Chef Restaurant Group. Confused? You won't be, once you start eating.
Not that there aren't missteps. Along with a warming, cheesy biscuit, the amuse bouche seemed unfinished. There was a thin film of purée at the bottom of the little cup, but it was almost unnoticeable. It was like a few raisins and a dab of vegetable cream. Overly restrained.
The first small-plate was much more winning. The menu, rather than being divided--as is now customary--into snacks, appetizers, and mains, is an unbroken list. You can guess from the prices (not online) more or less where the entrées begin.
You can't get much more seasonal than fiddlehead ferns, and here the al dente fronds were appealingly framed by a goat butter sauce, scented with roasted lemon. Various attractive leaves in attendance.
Pork and turnips was evidently a small plate too. The restaurant, barely two weeks old, doesn't have its supply chain fully established yet. Meat (lamb in particular) is on the way. But whether these baby turnips came from Blenheim Hill or not, they were staggeringly good. I'm a turnip fan, and when the bulbs explode with flavor, I'm very happy.
The pork--well, one piece was a little dry, but that's being very picky. Mostly unctuous, although almost a garnish to the vegetable components. Head meat, and again some citrus accents in the mere dabs of foam.
The setting is worthy of comment. Recently, discussing Racines, I noted that a distinctly Brooklyn aesthetic was starting to show up in decor, as well as on menus, in Manhattan. Brick tavern chic. Blenheim, however, is absolutely of Greenwich Village--a snug, sleek barroom lined with tables and very comfortable banquettes. Servers are uniformed and solicitous. Think something between Bar Blanc and Louro. Or maybe a smaller Blue Hill.
But isn't it great that guinea hen is back on New York menus? Where did it go? The "star" version at All'Onda riffed on the contrast between brittle-crisped skin and velvet flesh. Hilbert's approach is quite different: this is a luxury bird. At first you don't notice. At first you think, "Oh, just plain breast meat, how bland." And then you realize the tender breast--pheasant-like--is bathed in a smooth hazelnut sauce. Guinea hen and hazelnut: believe me, it works.
There are some hazelnuts on the plate too, just in case you miss the point, and some steamed stubs of lettuce which resembled--appropriately--Savoy cabbage.
Wait Wilf, where are the legs? Never fear. Bold enough to eschew textural contrast, Hilbert renders the legs soft and yielding too, braised (or confited, as we've been taught to say), and served in a side-dish as a pot pie, with a small cap of seared foie gras. This is Eleven Madison Park-level conceptualization, obviously executed at a lower level of expense.
Then, silly me, who didn't write down the cheese. It was New York state, not from Blenheim farm, and essentially a Brie-like paste with a Tomme crust. Anyone? Listed on the menu as "cheese and crackers."
The wine list is long, and weighted towards the high end. Glasses are punishingly priced $11, and up, up, so drinking here counter-balances the sensibly priced food ($32 for the guinea hen, but low-to-mid teens for the small plates). Rather than order any three glasses of wine, you're probably better off with an honest Rosso Conero at $48 from the bottle list.
Hilbert's cooking is a serious draw. Get yourself along there before everyone finds out.
Here's the website.