The life of a chef isn’t an easy one, but the heat, the stress, the lunatic critics, and the Ramsayian hazing all pale in comparison to the real challenge in New York’s volatile restaurant world: carving out a distinctive niche and cultivating a loyal clientele. To that end, the most trivial details assume major importance, from the font on a menu to the name on the door. In the case of Food, a recently reinvented spot on the Upper East Side, the name conveys a utilitarian ease, a lack of pretension in keeping with its East Harlem environs and neighborhood-restaurant genre. But if that unassuming choice seems willfully vague, it also serves to keep expectations—that eternal threat to ambitious chefs everywhere—comfortably low.
Low expectations, or the lack of any, really, made our first visit to Food a terrific surprise. So did the friendly and informed service and the diverse, affordable wines (startlingly, not a Chardonnay or California Cab in the bunch). But it was Food’s food that made the biggest impression—precisely because the menu descriptions of seemingly generic, overly familiar dishes did not. Food, like its precursor in the same spot, Dinerbar, is part diner, part bistro, and part bar, with a spare if comfortable setting, a flat-screen TV for sports-fan barflies, and a heavy emphasis on what has come to be known, for better or worse, as comfort food. But the presentation, the ingredients, and the vivid flavors all surpassed similar dishes elsewhere and pointed to a talent in the kitchen—a modest talent, perhaps, resigned to working within familiar, crowd-pleasing parameters, but intent on doing them a rare justice.
It’s smart of Food to keep things simple. One way the restaurant manages to do that is by reining itself in, limiting its menu and offering multiple variations of individual ingredients. Hake, for instance, shows up everywhere—in a plate of tender fish and crisp skin-on chips, in a creamy fish chowder, and in the terrific fish tacos, a generous three-taco plate garnished with cabbage, chipotle mayo, and a vibrant tomatillo salsa. That salsa was the best thing about one night’s dry, overcooked salmon. But blackened catfish was delicious, as tasty a hunk of seafood as ever was rubbed with Cajun spices and tossed into a hot cast-iron skillet.
We recommend the fried calamari, too, both for its mercifully light flour coating and its offbeat, sweet-and-spicy banana-chile dipping sauce. If you don’t like fried seafood (a definite signature), we’d direct you to the selection of salads, a menu category that’s often treated as a necessary if boring evil. In fact, there might be no better proof of someone awake in the kitchen than a nicely mixed, well-dressed salad, and Food has several, from the satisfying Caesar with its lemon zest and hit of anchovy to the miraculously uncloying endive with candied walnuts and Cashel blue cheese.
Food’s fried chicken is unlike any you’re likely to find in Harlem or anywhere else, with its strangely seamless, subtly spicy armor of batter, a pile of tender-crisp haricots verts, and a little ramekin of chicken jus that necessitates a side of first-rate mashed potatoes. Macaroni and cheese is basic but good, an assessment that applies equally to the hefty burger. Jaded gastrogeeks may scoff, but these are the sort of concessions one makes when one wants to become a neighborhood institution.
Already, though, there are signs that Food might be targeting outside its immediate demographic. On our most recent visits, a pair of Frenchmen patrolled the floor with an air of suavity rarely seen above East 86th Street, the wine list had expanded to include a French Chardonnay, and the specials menu featured hanger-steak-frites and raw oysters. But those same oysters were also offered fried in a taco. For such a young, promising restaurant, Food seems to understand how important it is not to forget your roots—deep-fried, salsa-dribbled, or otherwise.