Thursday, November 25, 2010

Northern Spy Food Co. Could Try a Little Harder

I keep straying from my modus operandi here. I get swayed by places that are doing what I like them to do- the prettiness of the book cover, and forget that I'm to focus on the author (so to speak). And sometimes they live up (in those cases, bless them.) But I ended up at Northern Spy Food Co., a restaurant I've actually been wanting to get to for months (Alphabet City! So far!!) and it unfortunately reminded me of why I did name my blog as such; there's a reason to put your faith in a trustworthy cook.

Not that Northern Spy is all bad. Or bad at all, really. In fact, there is some very tasty fare to be had amidst the rustically designed dining room. Outdoor park-style benches and folding chairs sidle up to small wooden tables with paper napkins and unremarkable utensils. Our waitress had the lovely glow and smooth skin of a country maid, but was about as nice as the gristly barn-hand. My companion noted that she greeted us with a phatic inquiry of how we were doing, but failed to even give us time to proffer a response. I kept waiting for her to soften up and be as nice as the space demanded, but either she was having a bad day or it just wasn't in her. Either way, it didn't help the overall experience.

The menu boasts the locals and the sustainables (the website has a list of their purveyors), and many of the dishes share a lot of the same ingredients, so you'll want to plan a bit what you order so as not to get too much of the same stuff over and over again. We started with a freekeh "risotto", a young wheatberry not dissimilar to barley, perfectly cooked to retain its nuttiness and toothsome chew, and bound in a cheesy cream sauce rife with chunks of zucchini and kabocha. The earthiness of the grain and the heft of the veggies balanced the undeniable richness of the mascarpone; this was one of the better dishes. A chiffonade of kale with crunchy roasted almonds, pecorino and clothbound cheddar (they are big on their clothbound cheddar), is nothing more than a sum of it's parts, and maybe even less so. A hefty pour of oil and abundant shaved pecorino dressed a rather enormous pile of raw kale, which hid some roasted almonds, curds of cheddar and a couple of cubes of delicata squash, but a lack of salt or acid rendered it simply ho-hum. Plus it was very difficult to fork up as the kale wouldn't quite succumb to the tine of the fork, but slipped off if you attempted a scooping method. City Bakery does a similar version of this salad, using all of the above ingredients minus the cheddar and some of the oil, and plus slivers of red onion and a sprinkle of salt... and it is exceptional. It can be done, it's just not up to snuff here. You might be better off with the kabocha squash soup which smelled heavenly bypassing our table for the next in the hands of our surly-ish waitress.

Mains tend even more rustic: good sturdy autumnal fare with two pork dishes, a chicken, a fish, and a vegetarian dish. The latter, polenta with wild mushrooms and two sunny-side up eggs sounded (and looked) simple but delicious, but wasn't one of our waitress's top recommendations, so we opted instead for the daily catch (striped bass) and a special of olive oil-poached

squid and mussels with beans and carrots. The bass (skin-on) was pan-seared, nice and flakey with a perfectly crisped skin. Yummy melted cipolline onions, puree of celeriac and some chunks of that root roasted. There was supposed to be some fennel in there somewhere (the bulb? the seed?) but I failed to detect it anywhere. But, it was a nice dish. I've just been having such good luck with squid lately that I was excited for this dish, but it didn't live up to my expectations. The squid was a little fishy, the beans slightly undercooked and overwhelmingly salty to boot. The mussels were the only exception... plump and meaty little specimens much fresher than their tentacled brethren, which were initially almost a deterrent to ordering it (mussels aren't my absolute faves), but saved what there was of saving in an otherwise disappointing dish. A side of green beans (these were the only real vegetable side. A request for a portion of brussels sprouts that were on the menu accompanying the Hudson Valley pork was denied, stating that it wasn't even worth asking the chef... he would not do it. This is not Le Bernardin, my friends, and I was not asking for truffles. They are little cabbages. This did not seem to be an extraordinary demand. But apparently, it was.) were tasty, though, if a bit too oily, but bright green and kicked up with some sauteed onion and pungent anchovy. Nice beans, but they'll never make up for the loss of the sprouts.

Desserts are stronger. There was a lovely little coupe of pumpkin mousse capped with a caramelized tuile of pecan, a cheesecake, cookies, tarts and pies. We opted for the latter, a lattice-topped apple with vanilla ice cream and some

superfluous oat crumby-dusty stuff atop. A solid pie (an good crust, thick, but flaky and buttery and crunched with big crystals of sparkly coarse sugar) fulfills all pie expectations, proportionately more crust than filling, if you like it that way. It could have been warmed, howver, and in retrospect the mousse was probably more interesting. Rich, intense coffee arrives in heavy white porcelain mugs from Strongtree, Hudson Valley's small-batch roaster of organic, heirloom beans.

We snagged the last two top upon arrival; the restaurant was full and stayed so throughout the course of the evening. Full enough that when one of the other waiters tried to navigate an armful of coats to check in back that she gently brushed our waitress's head with the errant sleeve of a parka, drawing visible ire and a vigorous roll of the eyes from her. She was such a pretty thing; such a disposition did not become her. But that's kind of how I felt about the restaurant itself. Despite the 23 in Zagat and a nod in the back listings of Edible, I can't give the accolades I had hoped. I so much wanted to love it! But no matter my admiration of their aesthetic and responsible sourcing, if the foods not up to snuff I can't become a follower. Some of the energies of doing the right thing need to be diverted into the preparation. That's not to say that if I ever found myself in the far reaches of Alphabet City needing sustenance that I wouldn't give it another try (perhaps stick the the meatier options? Or balk our server's suggestion and go veggie?), but from that visit I couldn't justify the voyage.

Oh yeah. The chef is Nathan Foot. Next time I will be aware of THAT first, and the rest should follow.

Northern Spy Food Co.
511 East 12th Street (between Ave. A and Ave B)
tel. 212-228-5100

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