By now it’s an accepted fact among the city’s clique of food fops and gourmets that inventive, high-quality dining is on the wane in recession-era, brasserie-crazed, comfort-food-addled Manhattan. This is probably true (it better be, because I’ve written it) on a grand, macro scale. But as tastes evolve, a whole new set of rules on how fine new restaurants are made in New York City has begun to emerge, too. Ambitious, highly trained chefs still come to town to seek fame and fortune, just the way other artists do. But because proprietors tend to put their cash behind well-tested formulas (brasseries, rustic Italian, etc.), these chefs are finding cheap, small, out-of-the-way places to conduct their experiments. As a result, there’s plenty of imaginative, even cutting-edge cooking in town these days. It’s just a little harder to find than it used to be, and when you do find it, it tends to come in smaller packages.
Take Sumile, a small, outwardly modest establishment, which opened without much fanfare a month or two ago on a leafy block of 13th Street, in the West Village. The room is long and slim, with pillows and rattan-backed chairs set along the whitewashed walls, like in an elegantly appointed Japanese boathouse. The captain of this neat little venture is a young chef, Josh DeChellis, who has served apprenticeships in great kitchens around the city ( Union Pacific and Bouley). DeChellis has concocted a menu that combines the most sophisticated Japanese ingredients with classic French technique. With a few exceptions, none of the dishes cost over $14, but what you get for your $14 is something to behold.
The first thing I sampled at Sumile was a wheel of Dungeness crab layered with a gelée made with green yuzu, and speckled with pearls of Sevruga caviar. As I sat pondering the textures of this sophisticated little creation, a platoon of kumamoto oysters arrived, each one touched with a drop of pineapple vinegar, followed by a bean-and-squid salad flavored with spicy X.O. sauce and decorated with a bright orange coulis made, as it turned out, with Japanese uni. A chef friend of mine, a veteran of many eating adventures, sat up in his chair as these dishes appeared. “I have witnessed many things,” he said in reverent, Yoda-like tones, “but I have never witnessed an uni coulis.”
Nor had he witnessed some of DeChellis’s other inspired creations, like braised Gulf shrimp, arranged in a little tower in a bowl of cold consommé infused with tomatoes and a tinge of horseradish, or a pressé of veal pâté (“headcheese” would be the less polite term) served with a kind of tangy, blood-orange-vinegar version of salsa verde, and a small collection of salty, crisp-fried duck tongues. The shrimp had a cool, dissolving texture to it, and the crunchiness of the duck tongues nicely complemented the softness of the veal, like salted pecans on a scoop of ice cream. There was a tender helping of skate (pulled apart and served in a little white pot, with fresh water chestnuts, garlic purée, Japanese chives, and strips of faintly smoky eggplant), and a nourishing soup made with thick, red aka miso and helpings of fresh lobster and sweet little bites of chestnut.
“Chestnuts,” said the chef, sipping his soup with a furrowed brow. “I would never have thought of chestnuts.” Ditto the slices of pork tongue that DeChellis places over braised scallops, or the sake he uses to spike the foie gras–flavored emulsion surrounding a well-poached duck breast. The only thing I actively disliked was an ostentatious (and, with a $15 supplement, expensive) helping of tuna-belly tartare, covered with Sevruga caviar and rubberized little cubes of pickled abalone. For dessert, there’s a rich hazelnut gianduja and a very fine fromage blanc construction sitting in light fig soup, with a crunchy tuile on top. Best of all, though, is a serving of gummy little lozenges made of black sesame paste. Dressed with a tart raspberry sauce, they taste simple, sophisticated, and indelibly Japanese, like a pleasant little gift from a far-off land.
Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, down on 5th Street, in the East Village, is another pint-size, gourmet wonder. “Jack” is Jack Lamb, who, with his wife, Grace, also runs the elegant sushi-ya Jewel Bako across the street. At Jack’s, which occupies the two floors below the couple’s own townhouse, there’s a pocket-size dining room on the first floor, decorated with red-checked Betty Crocker–style wallpaper and antique knickknacks from the couple’s eclectic past. There’s also a four-seat bar, where you can sit and sample oysters topped with scallions with ponzu sauce, or Louisiana hot sauce, while watching Jack, who works both his restaurants at once, scurry back and forth across the street in his maître d’ coat and tie.
The menu at Jack’s, composed by chef Allison Vines-Rushing, is as streamlined and tidy as the restaurant itself, and if you order the $75 tasting option you can pretty much try everything. My meal began with a pickled quail egg touched with mashed black truffles, and a little pot of mashed Cheddar cheese and pimentos, served with toast points arranged on a silver rack. Next came a delicious “deconstructed” version of oysters Rockefeller consisting of one poached oyster flavored with a crisp slice of pancetta, on a bed of spinach, watercress, and beurre fondue, all served on a long silver spoon.
The chef’s southern roots (she’s from Louisiana and trained at Brennan’s, in New Orleans) are evident in her choice of caviar, which comes from paddlefish on the Mississippi, and her fondness for crayfish, which are presented in a flavorful casserole. My exceedingly well-poached lobster (on the tasting menu only) was neatly arranged around a country biscuit, and it was followed by a helping of exceedingly tender pig cheeks, steamed in a cocotte pot with vinegar and collard greens. The only dessert at Jack’s is a single portion of warm baba au rhum cake, which manages to taste densely spongy and light at the same time. It’s set in a caramel foam, like a modernist bananas Foster, and garnished with whipped cream, which the chef serves herself, from a blue-and-white china bowl.