It used to be that the evolution of the old neighborhood joint was a slow, organic process. You needed a long bar, made of some dark aged wood, all nicked and scuffed smooth along its edges. You needed an eccentric local owner, preferably one who lived upstairs, and a quirky, familiar cast of regulars drawn from around the block. You needed a few sturdy recipes (meat loaf, chicken hash, shell steak) arrived at through years of experimentation and experience. You needed a haphazardly communal décor of worn leather banquettes, perhaps, a wooden beamed ceiling, and a few comfortingly crooked pictures on the walls. Mostly, though, you needed lots of time – certainly longer than you’d been in the neighborhood – for these various elements to marinate together. After a decade or so, maybe more, what you ended up with (provided the owner didn’t sell out and overzealous critics didn’t ruin the place) was a familiar, elegant, old-shoe establishment, a kind of semi-private reserve, impervious to the fashions and trends of the day.
Of course, old-shoe elegance these days is an instant catalogue commodity, a trend unto itself. Maybe that explains why The Harrison, which opened only a couple of months ago on the corner of Harrison and Greenwich Streets in TriBeCa, feels like it’s been part of the local landscape for years. Owners Danny Abrams and Jimmy Bradley (who is also the executive chef) perfected the art of neighborhood chic with their first restaurant, the Red Cat, in Chelsea. The big corner room is fronted on two sides by rows of glittery windows, and the interior is covered with a warm mixture of exposed wood and white, freshly painted bead board, like the inside of a ship. The menu is filled with stylish comfort foods like liver and onions, wood-smoked pork chops, and shell steak smothered in crisps of pancetta. “I like this place already,” said one grizzled old TriBeCa resident as he settled into the restaurant’s long faux-leather banquette. “It feels like Thanksgiving every night.”
Harrison Street is just eight blocks from ground zero, of course, and when you peep into the night sky from the window tables, you see the spooky soda-lamp glow emitting from the giant klieg lights downtown. Not that this seemed to deter the raucous mix of neighbors and curious uptown strangers who packed the joint on the evenings I was there, and tucked into their grub like droves of ravenous firemen. Our little table devoured a bowl of crispy fried clams (with frizzled bits of parsley and lemon, and a cup of coriander-flavored aïoli for dipping) so quickly we had to order another. After that came an appetizer parade of house cavatelli with veal cheeks (which seemed a little watery to me), an artfully layered endive-and-pear salad (composed of an entire sliced pear with a speckling of walnuts and blue cheese), thin sheets of filet mignon bresaola decked with fig syrup and wafers of Taleggio cheese. My favorite was a helping of sweetbreads, wrapped saltimbocca-style in prosciutto, then sautéed with chanterelles and a sweet Marsala-wine sauce; while Mr. TriBeCa seemed to enjoy his roasted quail, which arrived at the table lubed up in a shiny glaze of honey and lime and perched on an overwhelmingly sweet mound of white beans and bacon.
None of these recipes are too delicate, and those that try to be tend to get swept away in a tide of richness and bulk. My friend the tuna nut ordered a modest, sashimi-style yellowfin-tuna appetizer, served in a thin pool of gazpacho sauce, but soon abandoned it to begin poaching all sorts of buttery treats off other people’s plates. Even successful seafood entrées like well-cooked fillets of arctic char and the day-boat cod were served on big, comforting mattresses of red flannel hash and a soupy mix of leeks, mushrooms, and mashed potatoes, respectively. My tender piece of skate was muffled in flour, like a big piece of fried chicken, then bombed with a bland combination of green olives and grapefruit, and a nice monkfish steak barely stood up to an accompanying mass of spinach risotto, laced with more pancetta.
In the grand tradition of the old neighborhood joint, however, the brawnier dishes at the Harrison always come through. The chicken breast is crisped to perfection on its exterior, daubed with mustard sauce, and flattened in a pleasing round shape like some crackly savory pie. A heap of mashed potatoes comes with it, although I enjoyed mine with à la carte side dishes of lemon-and-garlic-flavored rapini and tiny Brussels sprouts mixed with candied pecans. If you like calf’s liver, Chef Bradley’s version is smothered in a sweet sherry sauce and served with sautéed Swiss chard and a pielike wedge of potato-and-bacon tart. The house pork chop (served with a pile of orzo laced with tomatoes and calamata olives) is tender without being fatty, and grilled to a charred, faintly smoky sweetness. The prime cut of shell steak has a similarly delicious sweet-and-sour taste. It’s grilled to relative perfection, doused with a mix of veal jus and balsamic vinegar, then sprinkled with the lightest layer of pancetta crisps, like shavings of coconut on a cake.
Among other side-dish trimmings, the pumpkin risotto had the goopy consistency of library glue, although no one at our table could get enough of the Harrison spiced fries, dusted with a mix of salt and spices. The sturdy house wine list is divided into goofy though helpful categories (“full, rich, elegant,” “medium, rustic, spicy,” etc.), which doesn’t keep it from being vastly superior to anything you’ll find in your local neighborhood joint. The desserts are generally serviceable, but after all the preceding richness, you may be too numb to notice. My favorites were a smooth version of panna cotta (made with buttermilk and flecked with lime zest), and a delicious quartet of weightless beignets as big as plums, filled with melted chocolate. A mammoth serving of apple-and-quince crisp ($14 for two) was less successful (the crumble topping tasted vaguely like animal crackers), as was a chalky semifreddo made with mealy corn cakes and a mash of seedy huckleberries. Not to worry, however. Give them another decade or two in the neighborhood, and these recipes should be perfect, too.
The Harrison, 355 Greenwich Street (212-274-9310). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:15 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, till 11:30, Sunday, till 10. Appetizers, $7 to $11; entrées, $17 to $28. All major credit cards.