March 26, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

It’s Good to Be King


Note: Chef Francis Derby quit King as this review was published.


It’s a BLT: Deconstructed bacon mousse and pickled yellow tomato on a crunch of fried bread.

It’s a BLT: Deconstructed bacon mousse and pickled yellow tomato on a crunch of fried bread.


          It’s on King Street, where the West Village spills into Soho. Call it King, even though royalty is in decline these days. (Granted Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, lends her commoner aura). Hang a baronial chandelier and iron gates for country manor airs. Install “Champagne Buttons” at mezzanine tables to summon waiters with ice buckets, coupes and a half-bottle of Veuve Cliquot for $39. Drill racy waiters wearing hats for a downtown feel to lighten that European heft and make sure they can translate the chef’s modernist cuisine.


A fixture worth a baronial manor hangs above our heads.


          What a motley King. What a curious hodgepodge. But it’s fun. It helps that it’s a quiet Monday. The mezzanine is deserted. It’s unseasonably balmy and the sidewalk tables are lively. Doors are thrown open. Where I often find molecular cuisine annoying, I’m intrigued, and then impressed with chef Francis Derby’s tricks here. Slightly greasy tater tots with béarnaise are irresistible. His saffron’d mussels and clams are actually thrilling.


The doors are flung open to a lively patio crowd on a balmy night.


          A waitress is explaining that  “Petites” and “Earth,” “Water” and “Land” (small plate categories on the menu) are for sharing. Even deviled egg salad? I ask. “You’d probably need two orders for four,” she chirps.


          Suddenly, our server has disappeared and a sharp guy in a fedora leans in to take our order. He smiles. “Smell those Brussels sprouts,” he says, inhaling deeply, as if they were roses, passing by en route to another table.


Cuisinary science creates a fool-proof, no break Bearnaise for the tiny taters.


          “I’m smelling bacon,” I offer. Our foursome has been debating what to choose - curiosities vs. the familiar. The Road Food Warrior feels safe with spaghetti and duck ragu. Hanger steak with almonds and black garlic isn’t as provocative as chicken liver with cocoa nibs, I suggest. The charming guy in the hat agrees we should get the squid with parsley and butter cracker. “It’s blended with banana.”


          “No, not banana,” I cry. "Squid and banana?”  I’m outvoted.


          Alas, this liquidy deviled egg salad melange is not very deviled at all, more bedeviled, I’d say, and cannot compete with great mustardy egg halves I’ve known, though I like the crunchy fried bread that comes with it, richer than toast and not greasy at all. Chinese shrimp toast is the chef’s inspiration. But his obsessive effort to demonize the egg - chili relish, bell pepper, maple syrup and honey, with a mustard and sour cream blended mayo - are wasted.


Fried snails to dip in remoulade. The chef gets ideas from old menus in the library collection.


          The BLT, a gift from the kitchen, is equally complex, and a triumph. Deconstructed bacon mousse with pickled yellow tomato and micro greens rides on the same super firm crunch of fried bread.  It’s a tangle of tanginess, a wakeup call to my mouth. Beer-battered burgundy snails to dip into a remoulade sauce are more amusing than brilliant and ever-so-slightly floury.


          But we’re all succumbing to the bacon effect, lamb bacon now, slicking quarters of Brussels sprouts, taming the sprout's natural bitterness. “Lamb fat has a silkiness pork and duck fat don’t have,” the chef tells me later.


Black garlic and chopped almonds add flavor depth to the hanger steak.


          By the time the squid arrives, I’ve forgotten my suspicions about bananas. It quickly disappears. Who knows what chemistry creates the savor of the hanger steak? It’s chewy at one end but remarkably savory. We have to remind my guy to share the spaghetti with duck ragu.  But then we are quickly distracted by a huge pot of mussels and clams hidden under a quilt of toasted country bread swathed with lush rouille. Long fat razor clams meant for slurping. Forks are dueling.


Forks and spoons duel for the layered deliciousness of saffron’d mussels and clams.


          I dig deeper, spearing some kale, return to spoon up some broth all by itself for the full impact of the saffron mix. I snatch the last garlicky rouille-smeared crust for myself. Our companion sends for more bread “so we can sop up the broth.”


          “Mussels and clams were one of the first things I learned to cook at Barney’s on Montauk Highway,” Derby tells me. He grew up on a duck farm near Patchogue.


The duck ragu on this spaghetti is Chef Darby’s tip of the hat to Grandpa, who raised duck.


          Now, after his years with Paul Liebrandt, Wylie Dufresne and David Chang, his broth has orange zest and the rouille is scented with vadouvan, the French-Indian curry powder. He does his fried broccoli and egg with mojama – salt cured, air-dried tuna. And smoked octopus takes the place of lardons in the frisée salad. 


          “I’ve got to always have duck on the menu - a tip of the hat to my grandfather.” There are Thai chilies and Thai basil and duck fat in the duck ragu. Of course the spaghetti is made in house. “There’s a right way to do things. I got that from Wylie.” Derby was in the kitchen when WD50 opened. “With Wylie, there is no corner cutting. So of course, we make our spaghetti every day. It takes half an hour.”


          The idea for butter crackers with the squid came to him in a grocery store when he was looking for saltines and spotted Ritz crackers. “Parsley and banana are old friends, you know.”  I didn’t.  Did you?


          As I’ve said, I stubbornly disdain molecular modernism, but I find what he’s learned from it persuasive. He works on the assumption that once the temperature hits 165 degrees, the banana milk and crackers will thicken. Bearnaise can be tricky. But he fluffs his in a Vita-Mix blender confident “The friction of the blade is enough to boil water. I pour in the melted butter. It holds at 150 degrees.”  Then he charges it in a whipped cream bottle. “It never breaks.”


In a Kingly mood, chef-legend Barry Wine tosses his latest ring creations on the table. “Take one,” he says.


          King’s owner, Lou Ramirez (once an eminence at Fig & Olive) and his partners wanted a Euro-feel. Perhaps some of Derby’s most dramatic daring on the earliest menu was too bold. I see certain anatomical parts have disappeared on the current menu. Rye bread tripe gratin with endive and orange is gone. So is pig’s head tortellini with honeycrisp apple salad, and the ripe stroganoff with crème fraîche and egg noodle. The menu seems friendlier now. Small plates $8 to $21; $22 to $36 for the “Grand,” $90 for 40 oz. ribeye. And locals are checking it out. I would be back just for the shellfish pot with saffron and kale alone. 


          Tonight we’re finishing up with coffee meringue-topped lemon tart, and a flourless chocolate cake with basil syrup and candied kumquats totally unlike most melting versions. After decades of crème brûlee imitation and abuse, King’s salted caramel crème brûlée, so simple, so obvious, is one more revelation.


5 King Street between Sixth Avenue and Houston. 212 255 0700. Monday to Friday lunch noon to 3 pm; dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday to 11 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 to 3:30.


All photographs are by Gael Greene, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.


Follow me on Twitter.

Cafe Fiorello