June 11, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Calliope: Of Humming Birds and Pig’s Head.
East Villagers are just discovering the serious French ambition in Calliope’s laid back setting.
Eric Korsh and his wife Ginevra Iverson have been talking about another place of their own since their Restaurant Eloise in Sebastopol, California, didn’t quite work out. It would be French, seriously French, but fun and laid back. And it is.
Spring radish with its mellow burn nests alongside buttered toasts.
Indeed, Calliope, in the ever-so-slightly dressed up space that was Belcourt, is almost too laid back tonight. Chunky candles are burned low on the deserted communal table and the place is almost empty on its eighth night. Our threesome doesn’t mind. We’re sipping $12 classic cocktails – Negronis and a Manhattan – taking hot bites of spring radish from a basket with buttery toasted bread alongside.
A night breeze burns the candles at a slant on the communal table, empty tonight.
It’s deliberately a very small menu to open, but larded with charcuterie, not typical East Village fare. The word “calliope” is stamped at the top in faded red, almost a mirage.
Satiny pig’s head slices, scattered with onion, parsley and minced pickle is a starter to share.
Gleaming thin slices of tête de porc scattered with circlets of onion and parsley has us in its thrall. Bits of pickle play an acid note. Beef tongue is thin sliced too, tender and bland with a sharp onion sweetness. I use a furl to wipe up a big dab of sauce gribiche: chopped herbs and pickle in a faintly mustardy, vinegary mayo-like emulsion. Sauce gribiche? When was the last time you saw that classic on a menu that isn’t Daniel Boulud’s? Makes me wish the evening’s special pork and rabbit terrine wasn’t quite so firm and tight, though I admire the presentation, with a bright green curl of baby romaine alongside in a very mustardy vinaigrette.
The perfect pastry tart is swathed with onion paste under tomato and oil-cured olives.
Charcuterie is Korsh’s department. Pastry and pastas are hers. The perfect pâte brisee of the Provencal tomato tart, swathed with the tang of cooked-down onions and jeweled with oil-cured olives and a hit of lemon zest under a toss of mache, is all the advertisement the two have had time for in the intense countdown to opening. No friends and family. No media preview. No press release. Suddenly the door was simply opened.
Thin sliced furls of beef tongue are meant to drag through the tangy sauce gribiche.
They wanted Belcourt as soon as they knew it was for sale. It had been French too, and as Korsh notes, “It had good bones and it didn’t need much work.” As soon as they got approval for a liquor license, the lawyer negotiated the deal and Korsh was on his knees scrubbing the floor. Both parents stepped in to take care of their kids. The accents of new paint are French Laundry blue.
Pasta is Iverson’s department as in this hearty toss of agnolotti and braised lamb.
Given the exuberance and flavor-punch of Iverson’s mascarpone agnolotti in a lush stew of sweet and sour braised lamb, her properly lumpy Swiss chard ricotta malfatti seems pale and bland. The whole fish of the evening – a tiny turbot replacing the fluke listed on the menu – comes paved with a lawn of parsley and herbs. The waiter carries it back for the chef to debone, and, I’m afraid it’s too cooked for my taste.
Carrot triangles and cabbage stuffed with a chicken thigh farci come with the chicken breast.
But the roast chicken breast is amazingly moist, even for a dark-meat lover like me. The menu doesn’t boast, but it’s an Amish air-chilled bird because the chef-owners are hung up on product perfection. The slow-cooked leg has disappeared into the accompanying stuffed cabbage along with celery root and carrots steamed in a parsley broth. Triangles of carrot on the plate are cooked through. That’s French too.
And don’t overlook the gratins: a new menu category for me. Nutty, crusty, buttery potato and Swiss chard gratin arrives in a cast iron terrine. Of course we’ll take the leftovers home for breakfast. Entrees run from $17 to $35; gratins are $8.
A side of gratin for the table is a must. Ours is crusty potato with Swiss chard stems.
The rhubarb and strawberry gratin by dessert chef Aleishe Baska is rich and wonderfully custardy, but it makes me long for a taste of pure rhubarb, whose season is cruelly brief for me. The rustic apple tart could have more apple flavor too. And the baba au rhum fan at our table would like a boozier baba – though this one is clearly just out of the oven. Perhaps Diplomatica Rum should count extra.
A gratin of rhubarb and strawberry, perfect for three to share, is an evening special.
The two chefs met on the line at Picholine. They’ve been talking about what their own restaurant would be ever since. “I picked up a lot of my flavor combinations in that kitchen,” Korsh says. Most recently Iverson has been cooking at Prune. He took over the kitchen at Waverly Inn when John DeLucie left.
Why "Calliope?" Surely not for the organ-like instrument tootling at old-fashioned circuses that whistles on steam. “I wanted to call it the Humming Bird Club to emphasize the fun of the place,” he says. “But friends said that name was too silly. It sounded like a children’s place.” After some research he discovered Calliope was a species of humming bird found in Fort Tryon Park. “I liked that idea.”
Needless to say there will be no relaxing for the two of them for a while. “We started small so we could ease in slowly.” He’s talking house-baked bread, home-cured pickles, made-from-scratch charcuterie. He plans to do a new foie gras preparation every day, “in torchon with pearl onions we’ll preserve in vinegar and our own black pepper brioche.”
The rabbits are delivered by John Fazio’s farm just north of the city. Expect rabbit kidneys in a mustard-shallot-brandy sauce on Iverson’s toast. Most young cooks today are not rooted in the classics, he points out. No one in this neighborhood is dong what we’re dong, except maybe Daniel’s DBGB.
The drive is clear when you discover that his father was a line cook in the kitchen of Le Pavillon and he teethed on the tyranny of classic French kitchens in those days before legislated overtime. “I want the food to be made right. And I want it to feel like someone’s grandmother in the South of France.” It’s just the beginning. But I’ve always wished I had a grandmother in France. I’ll be back.
84 East 4th Street on the SW corner of Second Avenue. 212 260 8484. Monday through Friday 5 pm to 11pm. Saturday through Sunday 10:30 am to 11pm.
Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
Follow me on Twitter.