The Kitchen Club
30 Prince St., Bowery, NYC
Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo
We had wanted to stop at Lombardi's Coal Oven Pizza, but we'd forgotten to get cash and we discovered that they do not take credit cards! And it's always painfully crowded -- one night there was a long line waiting to get in. It must be karma, since we can't seem to get to the place ... it's always something with this popular pizzeria! The first pizzeria in NYC (and in the USA, mind you!) and opened in 1905, it's such a jumble of doors and windows in a formerly down and out way (which is rather nostalgic hereabouts) that it's not always easy to figure out which is the front door. So we wandered around, thinking we might go to Bistrot Margot -- some WookieeHutters had already gone and reviewed the place -- but though I love French food, I was out for something different.
We'd noticed this place with the corner doorway and beautiful windows that fold out for sidewalk dining in fine weather the last time we'd dined along this street. And the idea of a "club" as restaurant had always intrigued us. In addition, the big, round table in the center of the room was the centerpiece for the whole room -- tonight, it sported a rim of tomatoes and big-sized plastic shanghai goldfish, swimming around a pot of blooming tulips. The other time we walked by had little sparkly bangles and stuff, things you'd expect to find on a young girl's dresser. (The blue curtain in the corner actually is the draftguard over the door, which, having been built into the corner of the building, is behind a structural pillar. Unusual and very pretty and very vintage NYC.)
This place at least had a sense of humor, it seemed. And these days in NYC, if the restaurant doesn't have a decent following, it doesn't stay in business for long. So we figured that it couldn't be bad, and the food was probably good. I figured we were going to be protected by the fates since it was my birthday, after all.
If I'd been less hungry, I might have noticed that the chef/owner has a thing for things Japanese -- it looks like a French corner bistro, but has a cloth Japanese doorway barrier hanging up behind the bar. I would have also noticed the French bulldog wandering around the place. I know that bringing a pet with you to a bistro in Paris may be normal and accepted, but since Americans don't train their pets or their children properly, I'd just as soon as pass on a place that had them on the loose. (I guess the prominent portrait of said bulldog at the end of the bar should have warned me, eh? But there are lots of vintage and "noir" type photos all over the walls.)
But I wasn't paying attention properly to anything but the charm of the place and the rather happy looking diners. We did notice the Asian motif in the otherwise French-seeming menu. Dumplings were offered, and we got the sampler; who doesn't love a great dumpling, after all? It came plated on a colorful "chinoiserie" type of plate and chopsticks. But the general feel of the food was not Asian, but French. Or as we learned later, Asian with a French twist!
Some chefs swear Asian and French flavor pairings don't work. I don't know if there is some rule for this, but the food we had that night didn't smack of pretentious "fusion." It never seemed the combinations were forced. For instance, there was a pan-seared cod, served with a rice timbale, but the rice was flavored with ground red shiso -- a common herb in Japanese cooking, but not in any other cuisine. The cod was garnished with a blob of cod roe in it's casing, marinated in hot red pepper -- a Japanese favorite called "tarako." The pairing seemed to work well, and the vegetables were cooked in a manner consistent with a French bistro, but it was stuff like baby bok choy. It was very good.
We also ordered something more usual of a bistro, the lamb noisettes. They were served with similar vegetables -- sweet potato, asparagus, pear and mixed greens instead of the "vegetables of the day -- and it was tender, succulent, tasty. The chef didn't overdo the Asiany influences here, despite the fact that lamb does tend to do well with Asian spicing. She knows when enough is enough, and how to get the best out of the ingredients and she has a solid concept. Mild flavorings and a finish of sesame seeds were perfect.
By the time dessert came along, the French bulldog was brought to my attention. I wasn't happy about it, since "Chibi" (which means "small" in Japanese) didn't fear the diners. But he was very well behaved. He'd come over and sniff around the table, maybe waddle around stuff you'd put on the floor (I lifted my bags onto an adjacent seat out of his range), but he didn't beg, bark, or even smell bad. In fact, he didn't smell at all.
The chef/owner is Marja Samsom, who is from the Netherlands, and who grew up with an Austrian mother (thus the Austrian-style desserts on the menu). She came to New York to be an artiste; she and her husband had separated, and he'd given her a French bulldog, who's company she found enjoyable and necessary. Chibi was not that dog, but the owner's fondness for "Japonism" had her open "Chibi's Bar," adjacent to The Kitchen Club, and "Chibitini" in Hell's Kitchen. Both serve saké tastings and food to suit. She hires Japanese staff to bartend. She has a nice aesthetic sensibility, and walking past Chibi's Bar on the way home, we saw that the empty saké bottles in the window were capped with little cocktail umbrellas. Again, that sense of humor in her decorative pallette.
Back to the food -- we were happy with the lamb, the cod, the appetizer sampler (which included mushroom, shrimp, and other combinations in pan fried dumplings, as well as an endive salad), so we opted to get dessert. Being it was my birthday, we got a linzertarte and a trifle. The "linzer" is normally a sort of big short-crust sandwich cookie filled with raspberry jam and dusted heavily with powdered sugar. The top cookie normally has a 'window' or a lattice. At The Kitchen Club, it's actually more like a tart, a small whole wheaty, crunchy, not too-sweet bottom filled with a thickened seedless raspberry purée, then topped with a latticed crust. Too bad the crust was obscured by a big dollop of crème fraîche -- I would have preferred it on the side or not at all. But thankfully, none of the ubiquitous and taste-killing powdered sugar. The trifle was served in a martini glass, complete with the umbrella. It was good, not too heavy, a luxurious was to end a big meal without hurting yourself.
We loved Marja's attention to detail, the sugar cubes for the coffee were rough chips from a block of brown loaf sugar, a rather fine panela. She also served coffee in fun mugs, made in a steel coffee press which was left at your table for self-dispensing. It stayed hot throughout. I remembered something about immigrant Swedish women drinking their coffee off a saucer so it cooled in small quantities, and they put a sugar cube between their front teeth to filter the coffee through. We tried putting one of these sugar granules between our teeth, and the result was surprisingly good! The lump eventually crumbled into crispy little granules -- a nice effect.
She trained her cooks to replicate her menu. I got to look into the kitchen because the bathroom is off the kitchen. It was clean, organized and painted a bright red. On the walls of the bathroom were personal letters of gratitude and glowing reviews. She noticed us taking photos of the food, said hello, told us she'd be demonstrating dumpling making for the new Williams-Sonoma flagship store in the Time Warner Center, where the New York Coliseum used to be. Her dumplings were really, really good, not a surprise that she'd represent her craft at the big foodie store.
It was a great evening, and I was glad I was too distracted to notice the things that would have normally prevented me from going in -- the efforts at Japanesiness, and the dog. Chibi turned out to be okay. I won't touch him or want him near me, but he was quiet and not smelly at all -- something I wish children would be, too!
Afterward, we walked around the neighborhood and enjoyed the lights and sounds of this formerly destitute, desperate part of town. There are so many neat, tidy, funky shops here. The downside is now things are expensive, and not the bargain you might prefer. Dinner here was $60+ per person for all the courses, a couple of glasses of wine, and coffee. But the food was surprising, fresh, good, and you don't need to fear for your life or your wallet. And really, $60 per person is not a lot for superlative food and great service and a wondrous environment. It's why I prefer this town over others, I confess.
Happy Birthday to all!
Interior room photos belong to www.thekitchenclub.com.
Disclaimer: The opinions and observations noted are the property of the author. Neither Wookieehut nor any associates makes any claims or lucre from the posting of this report or review. This webpage is presented by Wookieehut.com. Enjoy!