January 16, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Prima on First
Dinner might be the $65 seafood "Strada" at Prima's Bar. Photo: Steven Richter
“I’m hearing good things about Prima,” my assistant reports as we debate where I might go Saturday night, with hope of a decent meal after too many dinner horrors in a week. “See if they take reservations,” I instruct. I’m not easily enticed to trip down to buzz-addled boites and diners too far east, certainly not to a joint that doesn’t take reservations. I want reason to expect dinner will be worth the price if I’m committing to spend $50 in cab fare, and I’m not wired to stand around pretending I don’t mind waiting 40 minutes for a table. Still, I don’t want to seem hopelessly rigid or prehistoric. Tonight, Saturday night live, neighbors with a car have signed on for adventure, and we’re headed for the East Village. At least First Street is on the grid I know, not the far-east Bs and Cs of Alphabet City.
It's a full house with tables turning when this party of women arrives. Photo: Steven Richter
Indeed, Prima is next door to Prune, where a spot called Elephant thrived briefly and then skittered downhill. Our friend Danny behind the wheel knows exactly how to get there, creeping west on First Street. As we pull up, a car pulls out. We all marvel at his automotive magnetism. It’s a good omen for our evening at Prima, which at first glance is small, dark, cramped and crowded – in need of a good omen. First of all, I’m not the share-table type. And given any other choice, I would not opt for a tall bar stool with not much knee room. Even though my assistant managed to sweet-talk someone into holding a spot for four – reservations are only taken for parties of six or more – we can’t have that nice table for four on the left. “It’s reserved.” (I guess “reserved” has many meanings.)
On the brick wall, Espresso on Ninth’s breakfast coffee and pastry menu. Photo: Steven Richter
On second glance, the narrow storefront has a style - bare brick walls, filament lightbulbs, blackboards with breakfast options. In the rear, where there might be a second room, there is no rear. The bar where savvy late comers will sip Champagne with seafood on pedestals - $65 for the Strada, $95 for the Prima - looks right into the kitchen, smart and tight as a submarine. There is a vaguely familiar face overseeing the skillets. Turns out, it’s David Malbequi, a chef I met once at La Silhouette.
A seat at the bar gives an action view of the kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter
Cocktail aficionados probably find their way to Prima for the sophisticated alchemy of mixologist Greg Seider, an owner here with Hamid Rashizada, as well as of The Summit Bar, a mixed drink Mecca on Avenue C. Seider is fresh from designing Le Bernardin’s first ever cocktail list. But what do we know? Danny orders The Street: Zu vodka, Green apple purée, tarragon-infused agave, lemon and soda. It’s pretty good. I’m looking for something tangy and tart as always. Our waitress recommends The Last Cocktail: Spring 44 gin, Prosecco, pear purée, rosemary-infused agave, fresh lemon and clove dust. The less than thrilling bread tastes stale, as if cut too far ahead. It’s Saturday night, doesn’t hurt to be slightly tipsy. She brings The Street for me.
Octopus with onion, cubes of feta and cured lemon. Photo: Gael Greene
Except for the $80 côte du boeuf platter at the table behind us – a special the chef did on request – servings are unassuming and unadorned on small plates, entrees $15 to $28. In an era of complex menu design with items to share that are not necessarily shareable, followed by snacks and appetizers, Prima gets it all on a 5” x 7” page, six starters, six sea critters, five sauces, a burger and six sides The surprise is how good most everything is.
Crisply fried crab cake sitting on a rubble of radish and pickle. Photo: Gael Greene
The octopus is that rarity, full of flavor and good oil, a perfect texture, not too chewy, not too slimy, with olives and chunks of feta. A straightforward $14 crab cake sits on chunks of radish and pickle, to dip into tartar sauce. There could definitely be more mussels in the bowl, and more creamy broth. We have to ask for serving spoons. And the pace seems slow, as if the kitchen wasn’t counting on this Saturday night rush.
I'd like more mussels and more creamy broth, maybe a deeper bowl. Photo: Gael Greene
There’s nothing wrong with hake tempura except that it looks lonely without something on the plate. But then, it’s just $16, so order a side of Brussels sprouts and stop complaining. And you have a choice of sauces. “Green condiment” is a kind of chimichurri, our agreeable Tiana explains. The scallops, four of them exquisitely cooked at $18, are unaccompanied too, except for a buttery garlic glaze .
Big fat delicately cooked sea scallops with a stubble of garlic. Photo: Gael Greene
I like the taste of the grass-fed burger ($16 with fries), though for the $2 extra charge, it could have real bacon, not Canadian. And the fries ought to be crisper. I’m dragging them through the “Béarnaise sauce” that comes with my hanger steak, a $23 special of the evening – it’s chewy and rare and full of flavor. But the Béarnaise is pale and wan.
“Maybe the reason you don’t like the Béarnaise is that it’s Hollandaise,” says Danny (could be the night’s allotment of tarragon disappeared in the cocktails).
After a long wait, hanger steak appears, rare and meaty, enough for two. Photo: Gael Greene
Prima has five keepers, all of them bopping around tonight greeting friends. They met working for Jean Georges and for Laurent Tourondel at BLT. The concept – local, sustainable, grass-fed, affordable - began when The Summit Bar team decided they wanted to open a restaurant. They dealt directly with the lumbering Elephant. Ken Nye from Ninth Street Espresso signed on. Then Matthieu Palombino of Motorino, about to open his own Bowery Diner next to the New Museum, joined on as executive chef and brought Malbequi along to run the kitchen full time.
Grass-fed beef burger with Canadian bacon and decent fries. Photo: Gael Greene
Don’t count on coffee. Ninth Street Espresso only serves Joe with Payard goodies from 8am to 5pm. No one is allowed to touch its equipment after they retreat. Brunch comes soon. Maybe breakfast will follow, possibly lunch. For now, dessert is chocolate mousse or millefeuille. “It’s a killer millefeuille,” says our server. We decide on the mousse, a modest oval of stickiness, barely satisfying the need for a hit of chocolate. And all four of us are wilting a bit from sitting so long on our high perches. We have managed to accidently drop four dishtowel napkins into the darkness below, where our feet dangle. Our neighbors with the parking karma say they’ll be back. “It’s fun and good and cheap,” the two of them agree. Without a car or karma, the Road Food Warrior and I will look for fun and good and cheap closer to home or somewhere on the express subway.
58 East First Street between First and Second Avenues. 646 559 4823. Espresso and pastries from 8 am to 5 pm. Cocktails from 5 pm to closing. 5 to 7 pm, 2 for l cocktails. Sunday through Wednesday dinner from 5 till 1 am. Thursday through Saturday till 2 am.