The Lower East Side has been a restaurant destination for nearly a decade now, which is more than enough time for a region to develop its own unique sense of dining “terroir.” These days, I’ve noticed, many of the fashionable restaurants in the neighborhood are decorated like private Edwardian smoking rooms. There are dark oil paintings on the walls and shelves of literary books scattered here and there. Candles supplement the lighting in the dim tenement spaces, and you might even see a stuffed animal or two, in imitation of the famous stuffed-animal displays at the popular, seminally scruffy Lower East Side restaurant Freemans. Bartenders aren’t bartenders anymore; they’re “mixologists” who specialize in retro cocktails like the Manhattan and the gin rickey. The menus are filled with retro items, too (sliders, pork terrines, curry soups served British Ye Olde style), although chances are that your dinner will be perambulated to the table by at least one food runner wearing a nose ring.
Allen & Delancey, which opened six weeks ago on a shabby stretch of Allen Street, exhibits many characteristics common to the neighborhood, with one twist. The rooms are windowless and dimly lit, yes, and there is an elegant little bar up front, where you can sit nursing your cinnamon pisco sour by candlelight. A thick curtain of red velvet separates the two little dining rooms, which are appointed with old oil paintings and shelves of books. But the menu at Allen & Delancey is not your normal Lower East Side menu. It contains references to truffled fingerlings, fenugreek syrup, and slips of raw hamachi decorated with what are described as “pink grapefruit beads.” These conspicuous uptown flourishes are the work of an uptown chef, Neil Ferguson, who toiled for many years as chief lieutenant to Gordon Ramsay before getting summarily sacked by the volatile Scotsman.
Like his former boss, Ferguson is a fussy classicist at heart, and he labors mightily to introduce a sense of posh, even delicate Britishness to his new hipster milieu. More often than not, he succeeds, especially when serving fancified versions of old English favorites, like deposits of beef-bone marrow larded with caviar and puréed shallots, and a delicious terrine made with layers of pressed ham knuckle, guinea hen, and foie gras. My little sweetbread “raviolo” was a welcome relief from the endless procession of meatball sliders you see in restaurants downtown, and the seared sea scallops (doused with “celery-root cream”) were the equal of the seared sea scallops served in some of the city’s more-established fine-dining Zip Codes. On the negative side, the fishy, crispy-skinned mackerel appetizer didn’t seem to meld with all the fruit and bacon on the plate, and the sashimi-quality hamachi was soaked in perhaps a few too many beads of pink grapefruit.
Allen & Delancey’s owner, Richard Friedberg, also runs a boutique inn in Westchester (where Ferguson also cooks), which may be why the room here has such a snug, cosseting feel. His sommelier, Glenn Vogt, dispenses an interesting selection of wines to go with high-minded, Eurocentric entrées like braised fluke (nicely flavored with a rich cauliflower purée), crunchy-skinned slices of Moulard duck (plated with a turnip confit and seared foie gras), and a duo of lamb (braised neck and a garlic-and-parsley-covered chop, served with a potato purée) that’s as good as any lamb dish you’ll find uptown. The desserts—roast apples, caramelized tangerines, pineapple strudel—are okay, provided you have an Englishman’s taste for lots of slow-roasted fruit. If you don’t, order the thick chocolate-pudding crémeux (with olive-oil ice cream and a pistachio cake), and end your meal the way sophisticates on the Lower East Side do, these days, with a pot of steaming Wood Dragon tea.
Kingswood, which opened not long ago in a clamorous space in the West Village, is a more familiar kind of downtown restaurant. There are battered communal tables in the crowded, often cacophonous room, and the square, copper-topped bar is capable of seating as many as sixteen revelers. Decorative little butterflies have been affixed to the tin ceiling, and there’s a backlit diorama against one wall that contains pieces of garden foliage (mostly dead tree branches) and a large stuffed peacock purchased, one of the gregarious Australian owners told me, from a taxidermist in Tennessee. The menu is relatively spare and reasonably priced (only one dish costs over $25) and begins with many enticing cocktail options. In accordance with the fashion of the day, the menu also features a cheeseburger so imposing it prompted one excitable hamburger loon at my table to exclaim, “I’m going to have to take my jacket off to eat this burger!” The “Ruby’s Bronte Burger” comes with a tangle of truffle fries, is dressed with a slab of melted Gruyère and a carefully arranged fan of avocado, and is, for the record, quite excellent. Indeed, what separates this newly popular, casually themed restaurant from the rabble of other newly popular, casually themed restaurants in town is the polished quality of the cooking. The British chefs in the kitchen produce a superior Goan curry made with monkfish, green curry, and a sprinkling of onions, over basmati rice. The seared cod (plated over couscous, with a mix of raisins and curls of calamari) is worth a visit, and the thick, herb-encrusted lamb chops are almost as good as the burger. The desserts (crème brûlée, decent chocolate cake, an insipid fruit-and-meringue combination called “Eton Mess”) are a comparative letdown. But don’t worry. After a Bronte burger, and a pint or two of ale with the clamorous Aussies at the next table, you won’t even be thinking about dessert.