How do you capture that elusive mix of style, inventive spirit, and pixie dust (known to sociologists and stodgy critics as “the Zeitgeist”) and put it in a bottle? If anyone knows, it’s Taavo Somer, the designer, entrepreneur, and all-around downtown tastemaker whose wildly popular back-alley restaurant Freemans launched a thousand dining fads when it opened, five years ago. Before Freemans, trendy New York restaurants tended to advertise their trendiness in all sorts of standard, conspicuous ways. After Freemans, the fashionable new joints (Waverly Inn, Minetta Tavern) went underground. They served variations of the retro club food that came out of Freemans’ tiny kitchen (roast trout, bacon-wrapped prunes, curry soup) and slavishly decorated their rooms with the kind of carefully distressed New Vintage tchotchkes (tattered hunting prints, deer antlers, stuffed owls) that Somer and his friends scavenged for their restaurant at flea markets.
Now Somer and his partner have opened a second, slightly more populist venture in their old East Village stamping ground called Peels. Unlike Freemans, the new restaurant is located on a tricked-up stretch of the Bowery, which is fast becoming lower Manhattan’s answer to the Champs-Élysées. The spacious, airy two-floor space is clean and featureless (as opposed to cluttered and full of character) and fitted with familiar farm-style wooden tables and the kind of giant twig arrangements you see at tonier establishments uptown. In accordance with today’s (or last year’s) dining fashion, the kitchen serves southern grub (fried chicken, ham, eggs and grits, etc.) and a selection of grass-fed-beef steaks, which are butchered in-house. The obsessively constructed cocktails have catchy, slightly tortured names like the Joey Ramone and the Chocolate Julep, and as you sip them, waiting for your bowl of hush puppies to arrive, you can’t help thinking that you’ve seen this particular version of the Zeitgeist before.
The closest thing you’ll find to a new food trend at this curiously untrendy restaurant is the decadent andouille corn dogs, which the kitchen serves with a pot of sweetened Dijon mustard on the side. My guests and I also enjoyed the seared Montauk squid (tossed with Padrón peppers), the butter-laced grits (mingled, in Low Country style, with fresh shrimp, bacon, and a messy fried egg), and the country pork loin, which is smothered in mashed sweet potatoes and a porky gravy. But the strangely flat “fresh fried” free-range chicken lacked that salty, just-cooked bite you find in the best fried chicken around town. The Statesboro stew was more tomato soup than stew, the meager green-bean-and-okra succotash was served with cornbread that tasted, I’m afraid to say, like pulverized sawdust, and the Gulliver-size flaps of beef were so unwieldy (and, being grass-fed, chewy) that the decorous hipsters at my table pushed them aside, then hoisted them home in doggie bags.
Not that the food is really the point at a restaurant like this. Having a good time is the point. And although I never had a really bad dinner at Peels, I never enjoyed anything close to that clubby, clannish sense of occasion that makes Freemans such a unique place to eat. If you go for breakfast, however, you can get a good, fresh-baked buttermilk-biscuit sandwich stuffed with scrambled eggs, smoked bacon, and melted Cheddar at the excellent dining counter downstairs, or fresh breads and pastries to go with your morning mug of coffee from Stumptown. The competent desserts upstairs include a large, sloppy pot of custard topped with butterscotch, nice wedges of tres leches cake set in a pool of cream, and that old British favorite Eton Mess, presented, in time-honored, somewhat tired locavore style, in a pickling jar.
The Lambs Club, which recently opened in the Chatwal Hotel, after endless delays, takes its name from the venerable actors’ club, which used to occupy the hotel’s building, on 44th Street. That’s about where the similarities end. The original Lambs Club (“America’s first professional theatrical club” is its motto) now occupies a nine-story building near Rockefeller Center. The restaurant, meanwhile, is housed in a weirdly cramped, darkly paneled space, dominated on one wall by a medieval-size fireplace glowing with fake logs. I didn’t glimpse any real-live thespians during my visits to the restaurant, but the room is lined with so many faded portraits of deceased actors (Ronald Reagan, George M. Cohan, W. C. Fields) that one of my guests compared the experience to “dining in a Hollywood cafeteria, around the time the talkies came in.”
Luckily, the man overseeing the kitchen is Geoffrey Zakarian, whose credits include L’Arpège in Paris; 44 at the Royalton, in its heyday; and the great, though sadly departed, Town. Zakarian is constrained by the times (he’s a child of the baroque nineties) and the limitations of a hotel menu (the entrées include chicken, scallops, and steak), but he knows how to produce an old-fashioned gourmet meal. My foie gras terrine may have cost $26, but it was smooth as velvet and garnished with brûléed figs. The beef tartare was hand-cut and scattered with frizzled capers, the loup de mer was perfectly cooked and served with crispy fried artichokes, and the Delmonico steak (should you care to fork over $46) was sizzled in a properly rich red-wine glaze. The desserts (stale profiteroles, a nice, lemony lemon-meringue tart) are more prosaic, so spend your cash instead on the old-world cocktail list, subtly updated by one of the founding fathers of the downtown mixologist movement, Sasha Petraske.