As we march, wearily, into the new decade, assorted gastro-bloggers, tweetheads, and old-line culinary gasbags like me have been dutifully pontificating on the future of posh big-city dining in this post-boom era of comfort-food madness and general thrift. But if you want to glimpse firsthand how the obsessions of the old-school food world have shifted from four-star soufflés to a more elemental style of cooking, do what I did the other day and take one of your classically attuned food-snob friends to April Bloomfield’s latest gastro-grub outlet, the Breslin Bar & Dining Room. Braised beef shins appear on Bloomfield’s menu, as do many trendy, predictably heart-stopping iterations of pig, including a fried trotter the size of a small canoe. But the dish my friend focused her refined palate on was the headcheese (a.k.a. skull meat), which Bloomfield fries in little bonbon-size nuggets. She popped one in her mouth and savored it for a time in rapturous, even priestly silence. “You can tell it’s good,” she said, “because it tastes like sweat.”
Bloomfield and her business partner, Ken Friedman, won an unexpected Michelin star for this kind of sweaty, nose-to-tail cooking at their original West Village gastropub, the Spotted Pig. But the Breslin, which opened late last year in the Ace Hotel, on West 29th Street, is their most high-profile project to date. Ambitious restaurants used to plaster the walls with artful frescoes and hang glittering chandeliers from the ceilings. But to attract attention these days, you need a battered old saloon-style bar up front, like the one that’s been installed at the Breslin, and lots of carefully rummaged junk-store memorabilia (pictures of cows, deer antlers, porcelain figurines of pigs, etc.) scattered around the room. The waiters at the Breslin wear T-shirts, and many of them sport tattoos. The booths in the dining room are fitted with black and green leather banquettes, like a dive bar in Red Hook, and the tables are covered with butcher paper instead of linen. The cracked ceilings look the way they did when the building was still an SRO, and the room is shrouded in carefully calibrated neo-speakeasy gloom.
Jauntiness and light isn’t Bloomfield’s style, of course. She and Friedman tried that at their star-crossed fish house, the John Dory, but shuttered the venture after six months, despite decent reviews. At the Breslin, they’ve returned to their old gastropub formula and layered it with more of everything. There’s more booze (the wine list is seven pages long); more butter, salt, and pork (the three pillars of Bloomfield’s inspired brand of cooking); and much more attitude. The dinner menu features a snacks section, which seems to have been designed to fell an army of unhealthy-eating Scotsmen. There are boiled peanuts fried in pork fat, curly fried pork scratchings (served in bags dated for freshness), and a Bunyanesque Scotch egg that looks like it’s been stolen from a dinosaur’s cave. The intensely flavored beef-and-Stilton pie is the snack I liked best, and if you don’t plan on eating very much dinner, try the crispy fried lamb “scrumpets,” which are shaped (and weighted) like truncheon-size chicken tenders and served with an elegant mint sauce for dipping.
Bloomfield’s appetizers are mostly salads, soups, and terrines constructed with impeccably sourced ingredients and laced, here and there, with similarly lethal touches. A beautifully textured salt-cod brandade is tossed with garlic chips, fried capers, and cuts of light, toasted bread. A classic bowl of French onion soup contains industrial amounts of melted bone marrow (to the perverse delight of my marrow-loving wife). And the sweaty, properly funky headcheese is served the way butchers in Lyon like it, with a thick, tartar-style gribiche sauce. Several other soups (one made with curry and mussels, another, disastrously, with ham hocks) were too heavy even for me, and it was agreed at our table that the gently warmed smoked salmon (dressed with sprigs of chive, in a faintly garlicky butter sauce) could have done without its garnish of bacon.
By the time the entrées roll around, this unrelenting accumulation of richness can have a numbing effect. “I think I’m going to lie down now,” said one of my fatso friends as the fearsome sausage-stuffed pig’s trotter ($36 for two) was hoisted to our table. This imposing monster (artfully deboned and flavored with garlic and shallots) would probably work better sliced in ten (or 50) dainty pieces and served as an appetizer, and so would the delectably rich, apple-smothered pork belly ($50 for two), which is as big as a brick and propped on a mound of butter-whipped potatoes. When parceled out in smaller doses, however, many of Bloomfield’s meaty creations are worth the price of admission. The braised beef shin (over polenta) and the “vinegar” chicken (flattened and swimming in a sea of sherry vinegar) are dissertations on the pleasures of umami. If you enjoy a good beef-tongue sandwich, the one served at lunch, with a bowl of densely flavorful lentil soup, is among the best in the city, and so is the lamb burger, which is garnished with a whip of cumin-infused mayonnaise.
My favorite time to visit the Breslin is at lunch, when there’s slightly less heaviness to the menu and the room has a lighter, more convivial feel. To experience the full knockout force of Bloomfield’s supremely comforting, irredeemably English desserts, however, go at dinnertime, when the roster of “evening puddings” includes mugs of deadly house eggnog (spiked with rum and brown butter) and a properly flaky, French-style pithivier pastry patterned with chewy little slices of quince. There’s also a weirdly delicate chocolate version of a creamy Old English “syllabub” (a butter-and-cream-based pudding), and a nicely sticky version of sticky toffee pudding dressed with cooling slivers of pear and served in a bowl the size of a spittoon. But the dish I like best is an artfully constructed calorie bomb called the “Eton Mess.” It’s made with different textures of fruit and cream (grapefruit, coconut, ice cream, sorbet). The key is a fluffy deposit of meringue, which binds all this richness together and gives it an elevated gourmet touch.