Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I didn't have grand expectations coming to Ken & Cook, a yearling contemporary American in Nolita.  I just wanted something fun, yummy and energetic, and given the nabe and recent press, Ken & Cook seemed to fit the bill.  So I was pretty surprised to show up to a virtually vacant space at 8pm on a Friday night, despite the chill that was blustering about outside (practically balmy compared to New York winters of yore) and post-holidays lull.  But there we were, welcomed by a charmingly French hostess and flickery candles warming the whitewashed exposed brick and simple decor.

Ken & Cook is a hospitable little enclave on an otherwise gritty stretch of Kenmare which has recently been shirking off its notorious history and now houses a handful of boutiques and galleries and, with fits and starts, restaurants.   None seem to thrive so much as this neighborhood gets its footing, but Ken & Cook, from what I've seen, is a strong a contender as any for longevity.  Chefs Artan Gonje and Richard Diamante (Jean Georges alumni) collaborate on spiffed up American classics, and mostly to good end.    But though we were practically alone in the restaurant when seated, service was notably lackadaisical, which only worsened as the tables filled.

The cocktail menu seemed important- the bar stash is impressively illuminated and forms the entire north wall of the dining room- so we ordered one.  Our choice from a long list of snarkily named tipples took longer than it should have, and then I kind of wish it would have never come.  My fault for not heeding the warnings from our server... the sambuca-spiked gin drink was harsh and unbalanced, hinting of a thin Robitussin at best.  But we got the worst out of the way in the beginning, because from then on, things brightened substantially.  The wine list is a bit on the pricey side, but there are reasonable by-the-glass options, and ours were generously filled.

To start, a platter of flavorful ruby and golden beets huddled amongst sastrugi of unctuous whipped ricotta flecked with tiny leaves of thyme and nubby pistachios.  The cheese may have been slathered on with a heavy hand, but it was thick
and smooth and hard to resist.  The ubiquitous kale salad was a nice rendition, roughly torn leaves fraternizing with shaved parmesan, a fruity edge offered by shiny, plump pomegranate seeds and juicy blood orange.  Toasted pinenuts added crunch.

After a more extended lag (a table adjacent who had been seated much after us received their entrees before our appetizers had even been cleared) we received our second course.  Of mains, there were four pastas spanning the twenty dollar range: fois and porcini pappardelle topping out at $29 and a simple clam linguine at $22.  But speaking of prices, an $11 difference between the black bass and the monkfish seemed unjustified (luckily I wanted the monkfish, anyways).  It arrived as moist a piece as ever, languishing in a bell pepper-heavy romesco, and stacked atop fragrant fennel, thickly sliced and grilled tender.  The ample romesco served double-duty as a laudable dipping sauce for the fried chicken, too.
 Served up with an admirable drop biscuit topped with sweet butter, these hulking cuts of juicy poultry tasted gently lemony underneath a salty, crusty coat.  The biscuit was crisp of edge and tender of crumb- a thing of greatness.  It was just soft enough to absorb the honey-drizzled pat of butter and firm enough not to crumble from your fingers.  Avoid polluting it or the chicken with the cloying honey-mustard sauce accompanying in a little silver tub; you're better off meting bits of the tangy-crisp rounds of deep-fried lemon that crowned the pile of legs, thighs and breast... or a swath of that romesco swiped from the monkfish.

A side of toasty Brussels sprouts bridged the vegetable chasm, and were roasted to a distinct nuttiness with a flutter of shredded Parmesan atop.  This is the kind of place not too fancy to offer you mac & cheese (sic), but maybe it should be: Ken & Cook's

was comprised of a woefully overcooked orecchiette ( not macaroni) so much that the little ears collapsed in on themselves in their wan, oily sauce... so unnaturally slick it conjured up images of Velveeta, if it had a "white cheddar" version .

By the time our plates were cleared we really hadn't time for dessert- one of our party had a more pressing engagement following dinner- but we ordered it before realizing the inordinate amount of time that had elapsed for a fairly simple meal.  Service here is uncomfortably sluggish.  But eating it, even at a harried rate, minimized the fret.  We decided on a pear/oat/crumbly deal over a more predictable sounding apple pie, something chocolate, and a cinnamon bread pudding (relying on memory, here, 'cause their dessert menu isn't listed online).  The warm fruit was cut into thin, slippery slices, gently cooked to retain its texture and a smidgen of tartness as it wallowed in syrupy juices amongst crags of oaten granola, enriched with a scoop of vanilla that quickly melted into the composite.

Having entered with only moderate expectations, I emerged pretty pleased with Ken & Cook.  I couldn't help noticing quite a bit of online-bellyaching regarding brunch, so I'd recommend relegating your visit to the evening hours.  Plus, it's in an area of town on the edge of the nightlife scene of the boisterous East Village- much more so than a convenient roll-out-of-bed brunch staple.  But Ken & Cook shows they cook, and that they just might be the restaurant that will ground stone an otherwise under-capitalized block.


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