Normally, I’d rather dance with Dick Cheney than patronize a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. It’s not that I don’t understand the practice (no-shows are too common, and can be devastating to small places), but with New York’s bounty of better-than-really-good dining rooms happy to have you call ahead, I find it baffling that after spending your day waiting for your half-skim latte, waiting to log on, waiting for your eleven o’clock to arrive half an hour late, and waiting for the Duane Reade cashier to figure out how to thread her register tape, anyone would actually seek out the dubious pleasures of a no-reservations policy.
Which is why I avoided August for six months after it opened. Early press was impressive. Word of mouth even better. I didn’t care. I wasn’t waiting. Then one night I went down to Bleecker Street on an unrelated mission—to see what Marc Jacobs had wrought. Back when the designer opened his shop at the corner of 11th Street, Bleecker in the West Village was basically a strip of long-lease-holding antique shops, save for the three different rushes induced by the Biography bookshop, Magnolia Bakery, and Condomania. These days, though, where Jacobs leads, fashion follows. So, good-bye, Louis XIV. Hello, Ralph Lauren, Cynthia Rowley, Intermix, and Robert Marc. Stunned by the too-stylish transformation, wandering east in a daze, I came to when I was hit by a gorgeous garlic-scented aroma wafting from a wood-burning oven. It was coming from August. I had no choice. I was hooked.
Oh, how I loathe to admit that August is worth the wait. But one slurp of white gazpacho, with its cool taste of cucumber sharpened by crushed almonds, olive oil, bread crumbs, and grapes, and who cares about teeny tables and noise that doesn’t quite get absorbed by the front room’s arched cork ceiling? When the sweet sting of sea salt and vinegar spiking the tentacles of grilled octopus hits, does it matter that the glass-topped back patio is hardly a room with a view? After I taste a cast-iron dish of crispy yet airy gnocchi knotted with tangy rapini and showered with bits of walnuts and sweet Italian sausage (the source of the aroma), time becomes someone else’s concern.
“When I was hit by a gorgeous garlic aroma wafting from August’s wood oven, I was hooked.”
In fact, so much vibrancy and warmth issues from both Tony Liu’s kitchen and the personable, passionate staff that owner Jason Hennings has coordinated, that August feels like a local taverna along the Mediterranean. The sensation is enhanced by a seemingly banal bowl of blistered peppers whose flavor, all spice and spark and an occasional two-alarmer, spirits you away from the remnants of the workday. Croquettes of Serrano ham harbor lovely bursts of béchamel. Denser salt-cod versions use an aïoli dipping sauce. Both cod-and-pepper salad and arugula-and-fennel salad feel too familiar, but from the wood oven come two enticing variations on pizza: Alsatian onion tart with bacon and an ooze of crème fraîche, and a darker, crackling crust supporting a mélange of spinach, artichokes, pine nuts, and currants.
Entrées, though less spirited, offer the balminess that suffuses a seaside vacation. Whole orata lavishly drenched in garlicky salmoriglio sauce possesses such a rustic freshness, you wonder if August is secretly operating a fish hatchery in the Hudson. Also evoking the sensation of just-harvested ingredients is a coarse amatriciana of tomato, chili, and pecorino atop al dente bucatini. Skate in brown butter with capers and lemon confirms the durability of a classic. Bouillabaisse is a lighter but no less pleasing version of another classic. The bavette, sliced rare, is hearty, but roasted shoulder of lamb is superior, bolstered by a pile of irresistible chickpea fries. Between poussin and Guinea hen, choose the latter if you love dark meat and because the gritty diavola sauce of wax beans and tomato enhances the bird’s succulence.
Desserts are alluring for their lack of extravagance: figs and ricotta splashed with a tart vin cotto; thick, velvety panna cotta with moscato-poached peaches; and, best of all, a fresh raspberry-jam Linzer torte flecked with crushed almonds. If all that isn’t seductive enough, August is more reasonably priced than anything you can buy at Marc Jacobs. Except now that you know what I know, the wait is going to seem even longer.