Dentists still get plagued by novocained clowns asking them why they’re always “so down in the mouth.” Female flight attendants continue to deal with bedroom-eyed seniors offering “coffee, tea, or me?” And know what food critics hear? “I found this really great place, but I don’t want to tell you about it, because then you’re going to tell everyone and wreck it!” Thank you. Nice to know our words have such a positive effect.
Well, guess what. I’ve found a place I like a whole bunch and I don’t want to tell you! So there. Not that I’m the only one who knows about it. Exuberant locals are already mixing with inveterate seekers of the real deal, eager to be engulfed in the kind of boisterous coziness one hardly expects from a concrete-floored former garage on Elizabeth Street.
What attracts them? Exactly what will hook you too … if I ever decide to tell you the name. Against the far wall, three redbrick archways reveal the mesmerizing layout of chef Frank de Carlo’s handmade, backlit solid-brick kitchen, featuring a Hansel and Gretel-size pizza oven, an open grill, and a rotisserie large enough to qualify as a Ferris wheel for dead chickens. Come closer, and note the absence of any conventional stovetops, closed ovens, deep fryers, or steam table. De Carlo has limited his menu to what can be cooked over an open wood-burning grill.
His scheme is designed to produce the big, open flavors reminiscent of the rustic Italian dishes one stumbles onto along hillsides too far from Florence to see the Duomo, at a roadside inn north of Naples, or an outdoor taverna right before you board the boat to Ischia. Remember when this was called home cooking, a phrase that meant hearty, soothing nourishment, before a cable-ready world taught us that we really don’t want to eat what most people whip up in their kitchens, even if they do have six-burner Vulcan ranges? Evidently, De Carlo has been too busy grilling and roasting to notice, and the results of his self-imposed constraints – the antithesis of fusion cuisine – have been renewed inventiveness and focus. By looking backward, instead of ahead, he has come up with food that tastes awfully fresh and stirringly new.
From his mortar-lined kitchen come earthen crocks that release the rousing aroma of razor clams, oysters, and mussels baked in garlic, olive oil, and herbs; also cuttlefish in a fine, bright tomato sauce with sweet onion. A faro-bean-and-mushroom soup, dense and coarse as The Gleaners’ aprons, tastes almost too hearty and filling for summer. Nestled in terra cotta, thick, gutsy prosciutto barely girdles hunks of luxuriantly gooey mozzarella bocconcini that have been roasted into a delicious taffy, the perfect bonbon to chomp on during a film by the Taviani brothers. Roasted white anchovies sweeten rather than sting, brash arugula and bresaola are eagerly subdued by the silken touch of sliced ricotta salata, warm mozzarella is so smooth as to almost slip past your tongue entirely, and roasted peppers are so bracing that save for the texture, you might mistake their sweetness for apricots’.
De Carlo displays three strengths, all ideal for this kind of cooking. He is not afraid of pepper, garlic, or salt. He lavishes maternal attention on side dishes. And he loves to soothe. So the pepperoncini and soppressata on his pizza, when combined with a vibrant bottle of Amarone, will have you giddily diving for more bread. The root vegetables surrounding a handsome bronze-edged roasted cod commit uncontested sabotage. Potato gnocchi, a pasta I have always equated with sugarless cookie dough, is sultry and tender in brown butter and sage. And the briny piquancy of the broths that hold together his risotto with razor clams or bucatini with lobster make the addition of seafood to both dishes almost unnecessary.
De Carlo admitted he is still tinkering with his Ferris wheel, because golden and crisp as his Cornish hens appear, they’ve stayed a bit too long at the fair. And a seasoned steak is fine but no match for the other plates at the table, like the succulent rotisserie lamb resting on fragrantly herbed polenta or tearably good osso bucco with an added bonus of brilliantly full-flavored faro.
Even his desserts are unnerving, unexpected, and unavoidable. Most ricotta cheesecakes lumber down your gut like one of those religious floats making its way through the San Gennaro festival. De Carlo’s floats under a shower of pistachio praline. Panna cotta bathes in chestnut honey. Pear tart is so devoid of bakery-imposed sweetness, its subtlety is wiped out by a bite of an absolutely terrific chocolate-hazelnut cake with hazelnut gelato. Have I gushed enough? Actually, no, I left something out. There is nothing on the menu over $24, and most of it is under $20.
So how does it feel, knowing there is something out there so good that someone doesn’t trust you to know about it, for fear the peasants you tell will descend on and destroy it? Maybe that’s why DeCarlo and his partner, John LaFemina, called it Peasant. Because they’re smart enough and confident enough to take you on. And because they’re pretty sure they know what you’ll like. Be nice to this place, okay? And then maybe one day I’ll tell you about this great Cantonese joint on Union Turnpike. But not yet.
Peasant, 194 Elizabeth Street (212-965-9511). Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 6 p.m-midnight, Sunday till 10 p.m. Appetizers $6-$10; entrées $16-$24. AE, MC, V.
Occasionally – okay, about as often as the week’s news leads off with something other than a new youthcentric saga (JonBenét, Elián, ‘N Sync, Harry Potter: Do grown-ups ever do anything noteworthy anymore?) – a fellow gastroenthusiast does talk to a critic as if we were something other than Cassandra’s illegitimate spawn.
“Have you eaten at JUdson Grill recently?” the diner asked.
“Sure, it’s near my office. I eat there a lot.”
“But recently?” he insisted.
“Actually, no,” I replied. “I’ve been busy savoring places I don’t feel like telling you about.”
“Well, get back over there and tell me if you don’t notice something different about the chef’s cooking,” he said. “I always thought he was good, but maybe he was just having a really good day, or maybe I was too glad to be away from the kids. Nah – I swear I had the most extraordinary meal there the other night. Go. Let me know what you think.”
After four extraordinary meals there, I think the guy’s right. Bill Telepan has always been not only an excellent and underappreciated chef (is anyone at the Food Network reading this?) but the first ever to possess a palette dynamic enough to stand up to JUdson Grill’s daunting, brass-accented mess hall. But whereas certain noted chefs have been cited, lately, for their too-comfortable, lazy approach to their esteemed reputations, Telepan could show Emeril a thing or two about kicking it up a few notches.
His new spring menu at JUdson is one sensational plate after the next, propelled by a rousing level of confidence, in bold flavors and pairings. The food is full of bravado – unusually so, considering it comes from a man who looks so Clark Kentishly mild. Each choice he makes – whether selecting yellowtail instead of salmon for a gravlax enhanced by anise oil, or encrusting crab cakes in a thin layer of potato, or pitting marinated quail against veal sausage, or filling pierogi with farmer cheese and chard in a funky sauce of green onion – is full of sly but never tricky originality. Telepan is inspired by vegetables, thus the gravlax is accompanied by a lovely golden-beet-and-fennel salad. Asparagus is fired up with lemon, egg, and a hail of pistachios. His vegetable plate, anchored by a pea pancake, white-bean-and-spring-green strudel, and stuffed onion, is the best in town.
For entrées, salmon is wrapped in artichokes; herbs form a superb casing for a delicate loin of lamb balanced wonderfully with white-bean gratiné; and roasted organic pasture veal will spoil you. The pinkness of roasted organic pork will offer you a night of living dangerously, and balsamic-laced Muscovy-duck breast seared with foie gras will make you forget about whatever play you just came from, unless it’s Aida. (For that, you need to place a call to the nearest trauma center.)
If I take the time to single out all the smashing desserts (though a piece of the rhubarb napoleon should be taken every day, like vitamins), there will be no room left to let you in on one more secret. Crowded as it is at lunch, few seem to realize that JUdson Grill is a great pre- and after-theater spot. Resist the old tendency to walk west once the curtain comes down. (Or, as in the case of Aida, to throw yourself in front of a moving vehicle.) Change direction. Come north. Bill Telepan is currently having a really good day. Every day. Just don’t tell everybody and wreck it, will ya?
JUdson Grill, 152 West 52nd Street (212-582-5252). Lunch Monday-Friday noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30-11 p.m., Friday 5:30-11:30 p.m., Saturday, 5-11:30 p.m. All major credit cards.