January 3, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Behind the Pawn Shop: Beauty & Essex 

A passle of spicy shrimp, a powerful cocktail, grilled pizzetta with Maytag blue. Photo: Steven Richter
A passel of spicy shrimp, a powerful cocktail, grilled pizzetta with Maytag blue. Photo: Steven Richter

        In the first blush of Beauty & Essex by the powers behind Stanton Social as it burst into life on the cusp of Christmas, it had not yet been claimed by nocturnal tall women and the pride of cats who attend them. Still, it was impossible to snare a table at an hour when adults eat, so, in a Me, Eloise foot stamping mode, I was forced to call chef-partner Chris Santos, sacrificing anonymity.

         I’d fallen in love with the chef’s small sharing plates at Stanton Social before the usual darling brats staked their claim. It was amusing to order soft tacos to fill with lamb shank or soupy dumplings and get tremulous wonton skins stretched over…French onion soup. And unlike so many pathetically clueless spots that insist everything is meant to share and then send out three sliders for your quartet, Stanton Social was ready to serve four or five or six for a per piece extra. Just ask. But I dreaded the acoustical nightmare once the nighttime hotties took over.

Excellent “frites” worthy of the juicy burger with spicy aioli. Photo: Steven Richter

        Then I read that Santos had bought the old Katz & Sons furniture store on Essex Street, big enough for 300 seats on three floors with two bars and a lounge in its 10,000 square feet. Frankly, it didn’t sound like he was planning anything meant to please me. But still…I liked his attitude…and that food. With partner Peter Kane of Happy Endings curating the music and built-in soundproofing, Beauty is as Beauty does.

         Can this be right? It is 146 Essex. We have entered a pawn shop. “Is it all for sale?” I ask. “Can we shop?”

         The attendant giggles. “Not yet. Maybe one day.” Then a slyly smiling young man opens a door at the back and the main attraction is revealed.

A romantic fantasy and judicious soundproofing too. Photo: Steven Richter

        Stepping into a two-story entry with a chandelier dripping down like a shoulder-duster earring from the 80s, the feel is all very grand jewel box continued. At the desk there is some confusion. We have a table but we don’t have a table. We can perch in the bar till someone figures it out or wait at a cocktail table in front of an enormous serpentine golden vine wall plaque that looks like my vintage brooch blown up. It’s a funky, whimsical elegance I wouldn’t expect from the designers at AvroKO: pony fur walls, peacock feathers, boudoir lamps.

I’d like my baby back ribs meatier, chewier, less sweet. Photo: Steven Richter

        Finally, we are installed in the dining room with its vaulted oval skylight in a corner booth at a bare wooden round tended by uber-accommodating Ferris. He’ll get me a fresh Pink Lady if there’s not enough homemade pomegranate grenadine in my gin and applejack cocktail. (“Very tangy” I had said.) Just as I start to feel pleasantly woozy -- a cocktail with substantial booze, that’s a plus these days -- a long oval pizzetta arrives, thin and crisp and delicious, with a melt of Maytag blue, hints of apple, double smoked bacon, black pepper and truffle honey. “I’ve had two squares. How many have you had?” I ask, tripping over my consonants. My friends have never seen me buzzed before and love it.

Parsley pesto, lemon and parmesan melting under an egg on spaghettini. Photo: Steven Richter

        A tangle of salt and pepper shrimp is salty indeed and a tad too cooked, but I’m dunking mine into miso sambal mayo anyway and licking my fingers. The tempura onion rings are just so-so. Something is amiss, could it be they lack an ooze of grease? And tangerine-sweet baby back ribs are stringy and disappointingly wimpy. But the seductive richness of creamy chile-spiked mascarpone polenta makes up for a few flubs, and spaghettini with lemon-parsley pesto and a sunny-side up egg is a hit with all.

The poached black cod on beet puree was not as small as it seems here. Photo: Steven Richter

        One of our pals makes a stab at healthy eating: his olive-oil poached black cod with a spritely beet and caramelized citrus salad alongside is fine. But since we’re sharing, I notice he’s positively gleeful with his quarter of the house burger – juicy, rare, full of flavor -- layered with goat feta, tomato and spicy roasted garlic aioli. Fabulous herb-dusted “frites” dosed with vinegar powder and sea salt provoke whimpers and raves. I recommend Brussels sprouts with tomato and pancetta, and “simply roasted mushrooms” with Thai basil from a category called “Accessories” should you feel the table is underdressed.

Warm apple pie with cheddar streusel and cheddar ice cream. Photo: Steven Richter

        Warm apple pie with cheddar cheese streusel challenges Red Rooster’s version by daring cheddar ice cream. Is it a trend? If so let it start on long legs and succumb to imitation fast. But priming the molten chocolate bread pudding with chocolate bread is a fussiness to be encouraged.

The bartender is the soul of discretion pouring champagne in the ladies loo. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Unlike some chicks tripping downstairs every half hour for a glass of free champagne at the Powder Room bar, we’re game for a nightcap. It’s definitely not your Grandma’s loo, given the male bartender, though if the old dame is like me, she’d get a kick out of the antique perfume bottle collection. Luckily they’re glued in place.

         146 Essex Street between Rivington and Stanton Streets. 212 614-0146. Everyday from 5 pm to 1 am.


A Feast of Divas at The Hungry Muse


         Stars of whisk and stove and computer are assembling this week for the 29th Annual Key West Literary Seminar, The Hungry Muse: An Exploration of Food in Literature. But with Roy Blount Jr., Calvin Trillin, Jonathan Gold and Molly O’Neill among the critics, divas, memoirists and food chroniclers on hand, I expect a delicious stew. Keynoter Ruth Reichl will address “The Taste of Language” on January 6. Blount and Trillin will explore “What Ever Happened to Chicken á la King?” Adam Gopnik is set to chew on “The Rituals of Taste: On Molars & Morals.”

         Friday morning January 14, I’ve promised to reveal “The Seductive Life of a Restaurant Critic -- yes, yet again -- recalling memories of Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and James Beard. And on Saturday I’ll join Madhur Jaffrey and Bich Minh Nguyen to talk about “Beyond Personal History: The Art of Writing a Life in Food.” It’s not too late to sign on. There are still a few guests spots left for the second weekend. I’d love to see you there. To check out the lineup Google The Hungry Muse or go to www.kwls.org/lit/2011.

Patina Restaurant Group