Sometimes I doubt my palate when I have a mediocre meal at somewhere I know is better than that. Such was the case with Prune. But it was not my first visit (although it has been quite a while): and fundamentally, I know that chef Gabrielle Hamilton can cook: with the pen, the men, the women, the blood, the bones and the butter. And our meal started off strong, so I'm going to write the lackluster entrees off as a blip on the radar (accompanied by the fact that Gabby herself was not in the kitchen) and continue accordingly.
The menu is simply a long list of plates, virtually uncategorized, with only small breaks to differentiate between large and small dishes. With this, you are able to sort of eat as you choose, which I believe is the intent. Prices, though, are fairly indicative of portion-size, so it's easy to create a meal with various components as you desire. The first plate conjured up recollections of Ned Ludd http://followthechefnyc.blogspot.com/2011/08/diversionpdx-ned-ludd.html and its superlative oven-roasted bean dish. Here, mild yellow wax and traditional green beans tumbled together underneath a luscious puree of smoky eggplant, thinned to saucy consistency and studded with toasted pignoli. It made a wonderful end-of-summer starter, celebrating those seasonal vegetables with bold enough flavors to stand up to fall's ebbing temperatures. They would work equally well as a substantial side dish. Artichokes and fennel
Barigoule reminded me of my mom's wonderful chicken soup: she makes her own stock, too, and the depth of chicken flavor in the braising liquid amplified the earthy vegetables without masking their personalities at all (a tragic fate so common with braising artichokes and subsequently losing them to an acid). Bump up the broth ratio in this dish and you'd have a soup fine enough to rival Mom's. There was an impressive offering of marrow bones enjoyed by many tables that we did not try, but were obviously excellent; I watched flanking tables delve their tiny silver spoons into the upright cylinders down the the last drops. Happy were we with our beans and 'chokes, however, and they left ample appetite for mains.
Unfortunately, these were less stellar. My choice, grilled shrimp on Cayuga beans: four behemoth head-on beauties perched into a pyramid that would put Egypt to shame, spanned across a bed of the dark legumes. The shrimp were excellent: maybe some of the most flavorful I've had, meaty but still tender. All the four of them had a substantial "fat cap" (can you call it that with shrimp?), or row sac, so I'm not sure if that's what accounted for their tremendous flavor, or if females are just the obvious superior gender in shrimp, as well? (Ha.) The beans below, however, foiled the dish. They weren't quite stewed nor salad, and were inconsistently cooked: some crudely tough and a few tender, but all of them aggressively over-salted and tasting of little more. Some were so raw as to crumble like clay under the pressure of a fork tine, or split plain in half. The shrimp almost made up for them, but just eating shrimp alone (there was no other adornment on the plate) leaves one wanting. I should have saved a some artichoke. The other entree we tried was swordfish with caponata. Two generous hunks stacked atop the eggplant, onion and raisins, were
either steamed or cooked sous-vide, which, with swordfish, sort of misses the point. It is one fish that can stand up to bold grill marks, and takes on such a unique, meaty flavor that way, but cooked like this just waned generic. The chilled caponata was a bit too sweet- something that could've been countered by a salty, charred filet, but the mild flesh assimilated the saccharine conserve and just lost its personality.
I still had high hopes for dessert, assuming the mains were just kitchen missteps, so we went for a mixed berry pudding with lemon cream. It was a darling berry-rich mould doused in cream. The berries themselves had a fresh, bright tanginess, but they were somehow toughened, and the cakey English-style steamed pudding surrounding them was mealy and bland aside from their rich juices. The lemon cream atop tasted nothing of lemon: alas, it tasted of nothing at all, but, to redeem itself, it did smooth out the texture a bit.
Wines by the glass are limited to only one or two choices in each division (I had a delightful moscofilero), making me wonder if it wouldn't have been a better plan to order a well-priced bottle and stuck to just appetizers. But I know this isn't the case. Prune has been open over twelve years, it's decor changing negligibly if at all, and its positive reviews just as consistent. I regret hitting it on an off night, but I am writing it off as simply that. And hoping I am right.
54 East 1st Street