In continuing with new experiences for this week, I headed up to NYC for the weekend to spend some time with good friends. My flimsy excuse (like I need one) was an e-mail from someone at Ken & Cook saying this:
I came across your blog on foodnomad and find it very interesting and well written. It would be a great honor to host you at our restaurant Ken and Cook in Nolita at 19 Kenmare St and get reviewed by you.
Our executive chef Richard Diamonte and partner Artan Gjoni (both veterans at Jean Georges’) including myself look forward to seeing you here.
I guess there will come a point where I won't be surprised by these e-mails but I don't see that happening anytime soon. Anyway, in the interest of full disclosure, I turned down anything complimentary and just thought it would be a nice way to spend dinner with friends. In that light, I made a reservation on the Friday of Fashion Week in NYC for six of us. The only unfortunate part is that the guy who sent me the e-mail wasn't there when we ate because of some family matter (the hostess mentioned it). Hope everything is alright.
It wouldn't be a trip to NYC if we didn't get a chance to get drinks somewhere before dinner. Tonight, our place of choice was a little bar called The Beagle in what I think is Alphabet City/East Village. The front of the place looks all boarded up and you'd think it was closed if the door wasn't slightly ajar. Only a few of us went before and dinner and even though it was still light outside, walking into the Beagle told us that the night was just beginning. The only light in the covered space we could see was candlelight and we took a few seats at the bar.
It's a romantic, old school type of place with the service staff dressed up like they belong in 50s if the 50s happened to have hipsters. Our bartender, Tom, was a great, lively sort who had a million opinions about food and drink. Don't get him started on Alinea in Chicago but do ask him about Blue Hill Farm. What was great about him was that I told him what kind of drink I usually drink and he just went to town. He gave me a London Buck, which I think I had before, but didn't remember what it was like until now. It's a gin drink with some ginger ale and lemon juice. It had a nice, sweet tartness to it but the star of the drink was the candied ginger. He gave me two pieces, one of which I ate and let the other one sink into the drink. The combination of the sugar and heat of the ginger was something I could have eaten all day.
Ken & Cook is located on Kenmare and Bowery on the lower east side of the city. It's in a strange juxtaposition of neighborhoods. There's the bustle and otherworldiness of Chinatown to the south. It's within a sight line of the Bowery Ballroom and all the hipness that the lower east side offers. It's close enough to SoHo that the glamour and style seep in every corner. Ironically, it's part of Little Italy and you'd be hard pressed to find any trace of the old world neighborhood in this joint.
Needless to say, we got to Ken & Cook just a touch happier than if we didn't go to the Beagle. Ken & Cook is one of those places where the whole front of the restaurant opens up to the street and the seating seems to almost spill out on the sidewalk. Our reservation was for 8 PM which is still early for NYC standards but the restaurant and its bar were filling up quickly. It may have had something to do with Fashion Week or it could have been a nice cool Friday night after a week of endless humidity. Whatever it was, we could barely move through the bar area by the time our table was ready.
The menu took a simple approach when listing the food. All you see listed are 1st, 2nd and 3rd courses with the main ingredient in bold and everything else that comes with listed under. There were six of us and it had been too long since we'd gotten together for dinner so we were hungry and ordered maybe too much. Oh, and there were drinks. Plenty of drinks including one bottle of Amarone which felt a little too thin for a classic Amarone and a California Cabernet which made up for the lack of body from the Amarone. For food, we started with a charcuterie platter just choosing a mix of their offerings. From the first courses, we got the squid, beets and beef tartare. Off the second course menu, the papardelle and mussels. From the third courses, we ordered the black bass, wagyu flank, salmon, fried chicken, and the cote de boeuf. Oh and two sides of macaroni & cheese; and one side of polenta.
Yeah, that's a lot. It just seems to always happen that way and we all just kind of roll with it. I don't know if it's the best way to eat if you're eventually going to write about the food but it feels like it was the best way to order here because Ken & Cook is clearly more than just about the food. When I used to live in NYC, I called places like this, "beautiful people parties". It's simple and to the point and if there ever was a term to use for Ken & Cook, it's this one. The place is an absolute scene. There were beautiful women in sheer stylish clothing everywhere accompanied by equally stylish men. The champagne and decadence were flowing and while this wasn't a place we'd generally eat, we found it easy to blend in. Now, I know the person who invited us wasn't present so there wasn't any particularly special attention but I doubt we'd be able to get another reservation, in the near future, for 6 at Ken & Cook on a Friday.
Seeing what the crowd looked like, helped me understand the menu. You could already taste the flavors before tasting the flavors. You won't find anything eclectic at Ken & Cook. You'll find rich, decadent foods (I didn't mention it but there was lobster if you wanted) coupled with rich, bold flavors. For the first courses, the beets were a nice refreshingly sweet start to the meal. They were simple yet done well but nothing the table raved about. The beef tartare came with a fried egg which you had to break over the mixture. The beef was fresh and the yolk gave it a golden rich binding. This was well received but its a dish that can probably rarely miss. The squid was sublime and while most at the table didn't care for it, I thought it to be the best of the first courses. The squid was grilled with a bit of a char that gave you a nice smoky flavor.
From the second courses, I like mussels and I like chorizo but I don't think I like them together. The chorizo added a nice element of heat to mussels but I'd prefer for the sweetness of the mussels themselves to stand alone rather than get overwhelmed by anything else. The papardelle may have gotten the best reception at the table. The tomato sauce gave off that familiar tangy sweetness and the veal was flavorful, rich and moist as can be. However, the star of the plate was the thin, wide, homemade pappardelle. It soaked up the accompanying flavors in such a way where the flavor of the pasta was still predominant but enhanced.
The third courses are a little hazier for me. It was about this time that the second bottle of wine arrived so that could have been a coincidence but I think there may be more of a link than we'd like to admit. If you're hungry, the fried chicken seemed to be a whole fried chicken and was a pretty ample size. I think I tasted part of the thigh and while I liked the crispy skin, it seemed a touch overcooked and not as juicy as I prefer. The wagyu was a well cooked piece of protein. I didn't try anything else that came with it so I don't think I can fairly judge the dish as a whole. The salmon came out on the rare side, which I prefer, and was placed on top of a nicely chilled creamy corn salad. I really liked the contrast of a chilled salad and warm salmon. The dish probably needed some contrast in texture though. My personal entree was the black bass which came with some clams and the crispy skin intact. It may have been the flattest dish on the table with nothing that really excited my palate. The flavors were good but not necessarily as memorable as I would like.
"I just paid $50 for a piece of meat", my buddy piped up when he bit into the Cote de Boeuf. It was a dish meant for two so he shared it but it was roughly $100 for the plate. The preparation was extremely simple with the steak just chopped up in strips and served in a copper pan with some garlic and rosemary. I managed to steal off the bone with some meat attached and while it was such a simple dish, it packed a ton of flavor. The meat came out closer to the rare side than medium rare yet the fat still rendered quite well and the meat was as tender as it can be. I tried my best not to pick up the bone and chew off the rest of the meat but the combination of wine and some mixed drinks made that impossible. I usually steer away from the most expensive item on the menu but this, albeit simple, was worth it.
Umm..dessert? Yeah. no. My stomach would have exploded.
Ken & Cook will never be a destination place for us when were strictly looking for great cuisine. But, sometimes, you need to branch out and visit a restaurant for much more than just the food. The scene, the atmosphere, and the service should be all part of it. Sometimes you want to scene to overshadow the food and to me, it's at least equal to the food at Ken & Cook. We would all probably be less inclined to visit a place less glam than Ken & Cook if it hadn't been so long since we had all been together but we wanted to celebrate, have fun and feel a bit of the decadence of the city and so Ken & Cook provided the perfect place for that. Would we come back? That's a good question and the answer is: it would depend on what we're looking for...
Some of us continued the night at Freemans which is just down the street in Freemans Alley off of Rivington. A mention of Freemans is long overdue in this space as it's one of my favorite places in the city. It's located down a long alleyway with an entrance that looks like it belongs to a gardening store or antique shop. The tiny entrance opens up into a great rustic space that evokes themes of what a hipster may envision a countryside lodge to look like. We usually stop and get a drink at the front bar but decided to go to the back bar this time. I ordered an impossibly pink drink called a Fleetwood which was less sweet than I expected which was good but the color probably will haunt me for quite a while with my friends.
In the previous times I've been to Freemans, the food was always quite good but what gets me about the place is that something always happens there. From meeting a self-styled semi-professional soccer player who kept flashing pictures of him with famous athletes to two blokes from England who kept hitting on a good friend of mine. This time around, we watched a some guy we dubbed Ryan Gosling move down the line of women at the back bar spouting off nonsense to each hoping one would bite at the end of the night. We watched four women go into a single stall bathroom. Some people thought they may be sharing some contraband. I prefer to think that they required the comfort of others while relieving themselves.
There may have been another bar visited at the end of the night but all I remember is just three of us staring at three drinks in futility. It wasn't a long visit and certainly nothing worth mentioning. I admire our enthusiasm about wanting to enjoy each other's company just a bit longer but the weekend was just beginning and we had plenty of opportunity to experience that enjoyment. We did, however, start off with quite a bang on just the first night of a weekend where some good friends were getting together for some long overdue good times. The Beagle was a great place to start us off, Ken & Cook gave us a great scene to indulge in, and Freemans topped it off just right. Maybe there was another bar, but we'll never mention it since there was quite enough to remember from everywhere else.
19 Kenmare St, New York, NY 10012, 212.966.3058, www.kenandcook.com
162 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009, 212.228.6900, www.thebeaglenyc.com
End of Freemans Alley, Rivington St, New York, NY 10002, 212.420.0012, www.freemansrestaurant.com