Sun-Thu, 5:30pm-11pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30pm-midnight
C, E at Spring St.; 1 at Houston St.
American Express, MasterCard, Visa
You have to give the proprietors of the jaunty new Soho restaurant Charlie Bird credit for transforming one of the more awkward dining spaces in the entire city into an agreeable—if clamorous—spot for a bowl of early-evening pasta. The squat, double-height room, off King Street, is tight and narrow and tapered at one end like a wedge of pie. The last time I dropped in, the doomed occupants had installed dark wood molding on the walls, among other grim, claustrophobic touches. Now these walls are a combination of reclaimed white ash and exposed brick. Instead of featuring gloomy burled oak, the new bar is made of polished marble and set here and there with fans of spindly, house-baked bread sticks. You can get a classic Negroni at the bar to go with the bread sticks, and the café tables are well spaced and fitted with comfortable designer chairs covered in hand-sewn leather.
The nouveau rustico Italian menu at Charlie Bird—constructed by a lapsed haute cuisine chef named Ryan Hardy—has a jaunty tone to it, too. It’s brightly colored, like a concert flyer, and divided into bold-lettered sections (RAW, SMALL PLATES, LARGE PLATES), which will be familiar to anyone who’s lifted a restaurant fork around town in the past decade or so. Much of the food is diligently sourced from the farms and waters around the city, and most of it, especially in the early going, is very good. I’m thinking of the raw diver scallops, which Hardy dresses with spoonfuls of brown butter; the farro salad (with crunchy pistachios, little shingles of Parmesan, and fresh sprigs of mint); and the robust SMALL PLATE helpings of stewed tripe and whipped chicken liver, both of which are served with thick, buttery wedges of Tuscan-style toast.
As dinner progresses, however, the noise levels in the pint-size room become less bearable, and the quality of the cooking begins, ever so slightly, to unravel. “This is a junior-varsity bowl of noodles,” said my friend as he picked at an inert, glutinous rendition of round, folded cappellacci, muffled in threads of oily broccoli rabe. My bowl of crab-laced squid-ink “chitarra nera” pasta tasted weirdly fishy, and the sobalike knot of noodles underpinning the excellent-sounding duck-egg spaghetti were bland and chalky. The LARGE PLATE entrées were more successful, although none of the preparations my tasters and I enjoyed—tepid shreds of suckling pig with a rewarmed piece of crackling on top, good crispy country chicken with a robust bread salad, a professionally cooked piece of skate with chanterelles—will win any awards for originality.
Robert Bohr, who used to be the sommelier at the great wine restaurant Cru, is now a partner (and sommelier) of this small establishment. So if you’re feeling a little frazzled late on a crowded evening, and if you have the funds, I suggest you take refuge in his wine list, which is eclectic and wide-ranging for a restaurant this size and includes bottles produced by some of his accomplished sommelier friends (Aldo Sohm at Le Bernardin, Dustin Wilson at Eleven Madison Park). The pre-made house desserts are more prosaic and include strawberries with mascarpone, a pedestrian square of lemon cake, and a decent chocolate budino scattered with caramelized Rice Krispies. If you want to end your meal in classic rustico style, call for the smooth, properly wobbly panna cotta, which is stippled on its top with vanilla beans and sunk in a rich puddle of blueberry compote.
The entrance is on Sixth Ave.
All wines on the house list are available by the half-bottle.
Farro salad, whipped chicken liver and/or stewed tripe, roasted chicken, panna cotta.