Photographs by Danny Kim
When exactly did lowly tubers become so hip?” one of my slightly startled uptown guests wanted to know as we examined the “Soil” section of the menu at the buzzing, indisputably hip new downtown brasserie Acme, which opened a month or so ago in the old Acme Bar & Grill space on Great Jones Street. On this evening, there were vividly colored salt-baked beets in the “Soil” section, and knobby black-skin heirloom carrots cooked with pine and garnished with lardo and sprigs of rosemary. Most eye-catching of all, however, were the great, plum-size sunchokes, which looked like they’d been unearthed from some rocky organic garden just hours before. The sunchokes were wreathed in a creamy foam laced with winter truffles and Gruyère cheese, and brought to the table by waiters dressed in hip-hugging jeans and skinny black ties. The vegetables had a delicate char on their exterior, like roasted marshmallows, and when I asked one of the skinny-tied waiters why, he said it was because they’d been delicately smoked over little pyres of hay.
Two of the four owners of Acme have been running downtown-scene restaurants for two decades (most notably Indochine and BondSt) and are adept at imbuing even the most earthy dining trend with a sense of glitter and hype. There’s a giant thatch of cherry blossoms propped at the entrance of this chic hunter-gatherer lounge, and the bar is set off by a long mirror-backed wall of glimmering liquor bottles that would make Keith McNally proud. The weathered roadhouse tabletops of the old Acme Bar & Grill have been replaced with elegantly worn Parisian-style café tables, and the old divvied-up bar and dining-room space has been hollowed out into a single large hall. Like the waiters, the mixologists at the bar are dressed like members of an eighties-era rock band, and the room is outfitted with tastefully curated downtown art (prints of Playboy bunny–inspired skulls by Richard Prince and a neon sculpture by Hanna Liden) and rimmed with moon-shaped banquettes studded with black leather.
The real star at Acme, however, is the Danish chef, Mads Refslund, who comes to Manhattan from Copenhagen, where he helped pioneer the delicate, reductive art of forager cuisine with René Redzepi, at the world-famous restaurant Noma.* Redzepi, as anyone who has picked up a glossy food magazine recently will tell you, is a master at creating seasonal culinary bouquets from local Nordic ingredients (mollusks, herbs, tubers). Refslund’s cooking is a pared-down, poor man’s version of his collaborator’s high locavore style. There is no burger at this brasserie. In its place are bubbly soups whipped from nourishing, wintry ingredients like barley, chestnuts, and celery root. The house oysters are from Long Island, and they’re served with “winter pickles” instead of a mignonette. The salmon is house-cured, and if you order the duck, it comes to the table with an assortment of pickled vegetables in a jar.
Some of Refslund’s seasonal creations feel stagy and slight (it’s the middle of winter, after all), but there’s a rigorous, just-plucked freshness to the best of his cooking that separates Acme from the fashionably rustic restaurants that keep popping up, relentlessly, around town. The Duck in a Jar appetizer was almost too soft and funky for my taste, and a dish called Farmer’s Eggs turned out to be an awkward assemblage of eggshells filled with cauliflower foam and arranged on chicken wire. But there was nothing awkward about my Pearl Barley and Clams stew, which was held together by a rich broth conjured from butter, beer, and toasted sunflower seeds. A bowl of frothy, crunchy celery-root-and-chestnut soup from the “Cooked” section of the menu got similar reviews from my dining companions and me, and once we got over their scorched appearance, so did the soft and sweet hay-smoked sunchokes.
The spare entrée list at Acme features the usual tired assortment of brasserie standbys (steak, chicken, lobster), done in a variety of unrelentingly seasonal, often inventive ways. My well-cooked pork chop was buried in pleasing drifts of parsnips and sliced pear, and a dish called Chicken & Eggs turned out to be a satisfying New Age version of pot au feu simmered with fried egg yolks and fried fingerling potatoes in an earthen crock. I didn’t like the lobster (fussily de-shelled and with bland “seasonal” mushrooms), or the turbot, which was nicely poached but obscured in too much raw fennel. But the black sea bass, that old New York locavore favorite, was crisped in delicate little fillets and brightened with cardamom and sweet green tomatoes, and Refslund’s delicious version of arctic char (served over a mass of buttery winter leeks mingled with capers and sherry vinegar) is itself worth the price of admission.
Acme is already being gang-rushed by hordes of fashionable, newly converted downtown locavores, and if Refslund and his chefs can hold up under the pressure, their cooking should only improve when the more bountiful spring and summer months roll around. In the meantime, those of you who don’t have a taste for boutique root vegetables can take comfort in the deceptively inventive house desserts. These include puffy Danish doughnuts scattered with powdered sugar, an ingenious dish called Fallen Fruits (dried pears set over a bed of ice and a biting wheatgrass granita), and a bowl of diaphanously thin chocolate crisps that are stuck, like a plume of feathers, into a rich chocolate ganache. If you have to choose one, however, make it the inspired Scandinavian-style beer-and-bread porridge, which combines all of the elements of the perfect winter dessert (salty sweetness, warm pudding softness, the faint kick of booze) in one bowl.
*This article has been corrected to show that Mads Refslund is Danish, not Norwegian, and that he was a co-founder of Noma.