Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beauty & Essex

The name of this place is as indulgent as its food. Rolling up at dusk on an early spring evening, blazing yellow lights scream out from the brick facade like an "EAT HERE" sign outside a 1950's diner. You enter through a faux-beauty shop facade, and through a pale blue painted door an entirely different scene unfolds. And what a scene it is. This is, undeniably, the hot-spot of the moment, where bodies dressed to be noticed cram shoulder to shoulder from the bar to the dining room and beyond. I'm not sure anyone of note actually WOULD come here, but necks are craning and heads swiveling not to miss one if they did. Upstairs, the bustle continues, and without advance reservations, the best you will do is to enjoy the full menu in the lounge or bar (both are actually livelier and more situationally appropriate than the actual dining room, which is a bit subdued)... unless you acquiesce to the dreaded 5:30 or 10:45pm.

After a bit of confusion as to where we might be settled, we ended up on the second floor (the lounge, I believe) on squishy velvet divans with knee-height mirrored tables. This is less comfortable than a proper dining table, but it had a much more buoyant atmosphere there. The room is as dressed up as its
patrons, ropes of pearls loop from the ceiling and mirrors everywhere reflect fluffy white feathers, flickering votive candles and preening girls in tottery shoes. And it is loud. Even without the screeching laugh of the girl in the far corner, the music is thumping, glasses clinking and conversation requires diaphragm support to be heard. If reading up to this point has you intrigued, keep going. If not, please dine elsewhere. The food, for what it is, is quite decent in a yummy, grubby way, but if the sceneyness is going to cause any vexation, the vittles aren't going to be worth the effort. There are some flounces on the menu, but for the most part the cooking is pretty straight-forward.

They started us off with a little amuse of Caesar salad-topped crouton which did amuse me- tasty enough as it was, the complimentary gesture seemed a little upscale for the environs. We ordered quite a bit (probably too much), but thus got a pretty good feel for what the kitchen is doing. The menu starts of with varied raw options from oysters to tartare. Next up are designated "Jewels on Toast", of which I think the Caesar thing could've qualified, but wasn't listed. These, and the "Accessories" side dishes try to enforce the beauty parlor theme, but not that successfully, thus rescuing it from excessive kitsch. Charred shishito peppers are a huge mound of emerald beauties, well seasoned but inconsistently cooked. Some are still raw inside, others perfectly shriveled, but there are enough of 'em to share with at least two other eaters. There is another untitled category witha mishmash of option, including lots of little starchy and fried things: spring rolls, General Tso's monkfish, and oysters with bacon-braised spinach and apple, the oyster in which was all but undetectable amongst the crunchy breading, and the spinach had the flavor cooked right out of it. That said, had you not known the ingredients, it was a tasty little morsel (as such friedy-fried, saucy little tidbits so often are).

Under this same heading fell what we ordered as entrees, though I can't figure out why a Flintstone-sized portion of baby back ribs didn't qualify for "Prime Meats", but anyways. It arrived three hulking chunks of super-sauced meat, so tender as to
fall completely off the rib with just a nudge of a fork. Besides them on the wooden plank was a tower of concentric tempura onion rings, which were pretty wonderful in terms of onion rings. The meat's cloying tangerine barbecue glaze, on the other hand, disguised any flavor it may (or may not) have had, but made for some amusing finger-licking antics for an innocent bystander. Branzino a la plancha was three diamonds of skin-on fish, plated with a silky potato puree surrounded by a hedonistically rich moat of bone marrow gravy, a nod
to its gremolata component, a typical accoutrement of osso bucco. The fish, narrowly filleted as it was, surprisingly escaped overcooking with a edibly crispy skin and tender flesh. Paired with ... oop, pardon me... accessorized with some roasted brussels sprouts made for a solid meal. The sprouts are tossed with bits of roasted tomato and anointed with a lemon-thyme butter, but not excessively so. You could still appreciate the veg itself. There was supposed to be pancetta in there as well, but I couldn't detect it. Simply Roasted Mushrooms are pretty delicious, too, although heavily saline- but this place isn't about nuance and panache. The ambiance provides enough of that. It's more about assertive flavor and crowd-pleasing food: nothing too overwrought or fussy, nor requiring too much of the diner's attention that might distract from people-watching and conviviality.

Wrapping things up, we took our Halle Berry-look-alike waitress's suggestion of the black bottom butterscotch pudding. Its arrival in a dainty glass bale jar was deceiving. This stuff is so dense that the crisp little biscuit-shaped spoons that accompany it don't stand a chance. It's not immensely sweet, nor tremendously butterscotchy, but with the rich layer of pure fudge below, cheesecake-like density and ample size, it'd be hard to finish even with four people. You could try, though, with a cup of their mediocre coffee to go with, and still feel pretty content. For any of its missteps, Beauty & Essex still has a lot going for it. Who says that sometimes its not just about a pretty face?

Beauty & Essex
146 Essex Street

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