From right: griddled spinach, grilled Shishitos, thrice-fried fries, halibut.
Photo: Steven Richter
It’s freezing at the check room as I surrender my coat at Danny Meyer’s new North End Grill, but the bright welcome from a couple of cute young things at the podium is instantly warming. The glow of the open kitchen strikes me as cunningly bright but not glaring. I love the snappy black and white fixtures like umbrellas overhead. I’m smiling already, even though I was tending toward grumpy because we are half an hour early for our reservation. The two of us are either early or late these days. It’s impossible to predict traffic on West End or the West Side Highway in the winter lull. For a Friday night, the streets are strangely empty.
I’ve never been to Battery Park City. Our friends who live nearby on West Street urged us to take the subway to Chambers Street, cross the highway – all four lanes of it - and walk a few blocks south. First foray, we’re letting a cabbie be our Magellan. The minute we turn right, and then left on North End Drive, it feels foreign, outlying, like New Jersey or Ohio. The driver spies tables through the window. A vast stretch of sidewalk real estate means light by day and, ironically, a view of the Irish Hunger Memorial.
“Your table will be ready at the promised time,” one hostess promises pointedly with a smile. “Would you like a tour?” says another. She introduces us to the “library” of Scotch – booze being stylish now, especially for Mad Men-wannabes. She walks us past the kitchen where I spy chef and partner, Floyd Cardoz. I turn my back quickly, hoping to stay anonymous for at least one course. Our guide points out the seafood display and then the pastry station, where bread is being sliced – the slicer’s bright blue latex glove jarringly real in a spiffy chiaroscuro by architects Bentel & Bentel, with midnight blue leather booths and banquettes. There are 170 seats, including the counter at the kitchen where walk-ins are welcome, she tells us.
At that moment our friends arrive – earlyish, too. We’re seated, six of us, at a small round, facing a wall of rough planking – reclaimed Wyoming snow fence, the press release said. I feel myself captured, drawn into the fantasy here, the spiff of the design, the cozening PanAm stewardess airs of the servers, as if I’m in a time warp. It’s contagious. Some of us are contemplating Scotch by the wee dram (1.5 oz), priced from $8 to $68, or on a plank (3 nips – half a wee dram).
We settle on $13 creations instead, my friends drawn to Scotch cocktails: A Blood and Sand with cherry brandy and orange juice, and a Gaslight, with Drambuie and Orange Curaçao. The waitress practically jumps up and claps her hands when one of my friends orders white Port. “I’m so happy somebody ordered Port,” she cries. “Nobody ever notices it there.” I seem to recall that before the aperitif Kir took over, my cocktail was the Jack Rose, starring apple brandy. I try not to obsess, like the critic I am, that my perfect waitress has actually spilled it. Smart as a whip, enthusiastic, extremely knowledgeable, possibly she’s just nervous. It’s a wonderful Jack Rose, though not boozy enough to blur my impression that the chef’s vividly creative menu is definitely still a work in progress: remarkable ups, alarming downs, too long waits for the food, an excess of saltiness provoking complaints from my friends who exclaim they love salt, “but this is too much for me.”
I can’t quite decide how I feel about the onion rings we ordered from the bar menu. The frying is perfect, the pebbly batter stays glued. Something about the flavor gives me pause. But I’m clear on the pumpkin crab soup – not enough pumpkin essence. Chewy, almost leathery dough of the bacon-maple syrup-pizza, also from the bar menu, is fiercely salty too. Perhaps if the homemade peanut butter with chipotle paste in a separate tiny dish had been Skippy and spread directly on the pie, it would have softened it. I might have been so totally seduced I could forget how many times servers bumped into my chair in the admittedly crowded space - and apologized, of course.
Still, Hamachi sashimi has sushi bar sparkle, and remarkable seaweed salad alongside. I force myself to put back a third forkful so my pals can taste too. Shaved turnips, fennel and pecorino tossed with black pepper vinaigrette make a brilliant salad and I’m pleased with my choice of escarole, endive and radicchio with blood orange and Marcona almonds as my entrée.
Cardoz himself comes to our table just after the halibut with pine nuts, green raisins and clams. “I cooked that for you,” he says to me. And indeed the fish is delicately cooked, just the way I like it. He seems clearly exhausted and agrees with our companion, Barry Wine, chef of the fabled Quilted Giraffe, that the complicated grill-oven takes time to master.
Of the five egg dishes catering to our town’s love affair with them, a slightly-too-cooked coddled egg riding on grits stuffed with Peekytoe crab and bacon is the best of the three I tasted. The slow poached egg with paddlefish caviar and bottarga needs another element to be more than just assembled ingredients. And the lobster omelet is, surprisingly, just a lobster omelet. Roasted mushroom and kale “Risoato” – got that? Oats instead of rice – tastes healthy, but at a price.
I suspect the cayenne and paprika, maybe even the dried mango powder, intensifies the saltiness of the Thrice-Fried Spiced Fries. These are crisp on the outside and soft within. I probably ate twenty or so trying to decide why they weren’t outrageously fabulous. Not crisp enough maybe. Must be eaten hot. All that salt. And I like salt too.
Sticky toffee pudding (it seems to be a trend in my last couple of reviews) with ginger ice cream is our tables’ favorite dessert over the rather restrained North End Eccles Cake, with Montgomery Cheddar in too-thin slices alongside. The lemon meringue pie looks like Bjork floating away on an ice floe. I want more lemon intensity and didn’t need the candied almonds.
Of course I’ll be back, if I can get in after this BITE. It’s exciting that Cardoz is inspired by the challenge of cooking beyond the Indian fusion of Tabla. He needs to out-muscle the temperamental custom stove. He needs candid tasters and time. Maybe I’ll even jump on the subway and join the locals braving that West Side Highway hurdle. There’s nothing like North End Grill downtown and savvy neighbors will compete for its tables.
104 North End Avenue. 646 747 1600. Lunch Monday through Friday 2:30 till 5 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 till 10 pm, Friday and Saturday till 11 pm. Bar menu available all day.