"Ladies and Gentlemen, the chefs have left the building." Or so I found out by an unfortunate post-prandial informative. Calliope is a pretty-but-pretty-typical French bistro on a comely corner of the East Village, distressed mirrors and a white-washed tin paneled ceiling. My friend (chef and food critic) and most reliable resource had gone on and on about this place- and I had actually attempted three times to go, foiled by a full house with no availability, or private parties. But on this winter-into-spring evening, the charming reservationist said he "could squeeze" me in, which I might have taken as indication of how we were going to be treated. But he was so genial and pleasant himself, the simple reservation-making process actually redoubled my anticipation of the restaurant itself.
So I arrived earlier than my dining companion, and was seated at what might be the best seat in the house, mid-room and in full view of the well-designed room as well as passerby traffic of the bustling St. Marks annex. Inside, the tables were beginning to fill with a somewhat mature crowd, but most seemed like regulars or neighborhooders, who probably appreciate a slightly more refined destination amongst the classic grit of the East Village.
A complimentary plate of crisp radishes and oily
anchovy toast greeted us, but that's the only bread you'll see throughout the course of the night. There may be some upon request, but that didn't occur to me until I was 7/8th of the way through my main, where I was wishing I had a crust with with to finish up my entree. As soon as emptied, that dish was whisked away without promise of refilling. This became a theme for the night: the plates recaptured literally before completion, which makes me think that "squeeze" was that they needed that table back in an abbreviated time frame. This is NOT the way to handle such a situation. If you want to compound reservations, notify your diner before confirming that the reservation can be had, but the table needed back by X o'clock. Information is everything. Do not just seat a party, and then bulldoze through the courses.
These courses I speak of, are numbered One though Three, the first of which perhaps qualify as snacks: oysters, rillettes and the like, but the
offerings in Two aren't much different: soup, mussels or an octopus salad, all at similar price points, so I didn't quite get the distinction. At any rate, my salad from Two was a simple mix of farm lettuces, sprinkled with a tangy crumble of feta and a squiggle of creamy dressing, topped with matchstick scallions. Big enough to share, but might have benefitted from a spritz of freshly ground pepper, which was neither a table nor offered. The busboy actually hovered over the table, waiting for me to fork the last leaf before relieving us of the salad plate- I replaced the salad fork upon the plate in his hands as he turned on his heel. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with leaving an empty plate in front of a diner for a moment of consideration... unless, of course, the clock is ticking.
Category Three gives us the entrees: a classic steak frites, a lusty sounding roast chicken stuffed with cabbage, and a cheeseburger with Vermont white cheddar. Somewhat more novel was a lamb's neck ragu, stewed down to pure winter comfort, atop house-made pappardelle: wide, floppy ribbons with just the right amount of chew. I went for a seared halibut, which was a perfectly just-cooked filet crisped golden on the edges, strewn with translucent discs of radish and shreds of fennel. A thick puree of celeriac spiraled
underneath, studded with a few sweet golden beets, good enough to warrant a clean plate, although no awards. Plates, as you might notice, are a little sparse, so a side dish is probably a good, if not requisite, idea. There was only one cooked vegetable, the other would've been redundant salad of watercress, or housemade pickles- which I think of more as a garnish- or starches: frites or fingerlings. Instead, the grilled
radicchio wouldn't have normally been my first choice, but it stood up nicely, the charred edges contributing smokiness to the bitter leaves, a tang of lemon and zip from a scattering of chili flakes.
But basically, there was nothing technically wrong with our meal (with the service, yes, but the food, not really). All the same, I couldn't help but wonder, throughout the course of the evening, where any of the sparkle was. The recommendations and reviews I pocketed outshone my experience so vastly, I had to wonder if I had severely mis-ordered, or if it was just an off night. But my own pride in not checking my phone constantly shot me in the foot: two unread emails in my inbox held the crucial information: the husband-and-wife chef team had apparently departed just over a month prior, and with them seems to have taken all the ado. While the emails said "Don't go!" I might soften that admonition somewhat: don't go out of your way to go, but if your near and destination-less, you could do much worse.
84 EAST FOURTH STREET
NEW YORK, NY 10003