Entering ACME at 10:45 on a Saturday night is a sight. The crowd is an interesting one - it's a scene with a capital "S" undoubtedly: people are packed in, the noise level is high. It's a fashionable crowd, for sure. A step up from the throngs that haunt the "in" spots in my neighborhood (the LES) - these are not the entry-level ibankers and bachelorette parties who stand in rope lines in the hopes of being let into the latest spot that they heard maybe an Olsen Twin had been spotted at a month ago. As packed as it was, there always seemed to be space - this is a more adult, though still boisterous crowd. No one's shoving their way to the bar to get smashed on sour-apple kamikazes. Only one Ed Hardy(-esque) shirt in sight.
There's a bit of confusion to find the hostess' stand, at first. It's not in sight of the door, so we wove our way through the crowd, down the bar, until we spotted it around a corner to the right. The two girls at the stand were doing an admirable job of keeping up with the crowds. On one side, people trying to check in - on another, people picking up their coats. Were this a rowdier, drunker scene it could easily have spilled over the edge into bedlam. But everyone seemed happy. Testosterone levels were low (well, we'd just come from seeing Soderbergh's "Haywire" - so actually MY testosterone level was high. But in a fun way.)
We checked in, were told (of course) there'd be a little wait, so we found a couple seats in the bar. Surprisingly easy to get a drink, given the tumult. I started off with a "Graffiti Green" - a concoction involving bell peppers and gin (I'm partial to savory cocktails) that was pretty solid. Well-balanced, not too sweet. My girlfriend insisted it tasted like the smell of Acqua di Gio, but I have no idea what AdG smells like so I couldn't comment. I can only say it was tasty, though I wouldn't go so far as to dab it behind my ears before a night on the town.
Eventually we were seated. It quickly became apparent that there was, perhaps, one table more than there should have been in the dining area. And we were seated, unfortunately, at that one table that maybe shouldn't have been there - at least not on a weekend. Most of the seating is in booths and banquettes around the perimeter, with round tables scattered through the inside. The one smaller two-to-three-top closest to the front, however, overlaps just a hair too far into the bar area. It's a bit like dining at a major intersection - waiters are constantly brushing past you to bring bar snacks to the people up front, or to bring cocktails from the bar on the left of you to the banquette on your right. The staff were all very professional, though - there was never any fear of something spilling on us. But, it being a Saturday night, as the scene ebbed and flowed, it would occasionally flow right up to our table. More than once I turned my head to find someone's ass in my face. Admittedly, a couple of them were cute asses, so I can't complain too much, but it's still a bit odd to be dining, seated, with people standing and milling about mere inches away. I can't even blame the people attached to the Mur des Fesses (or perhaps, given the provenance, I should say "Mur af Balder") making up our landscape. It's just the nature of a bar scene like that - as more people are let through the front door, those towards the back of the bar get pushed a little further back. Were there some clearer deliniation between the bar and dining areas, this wouldn't have been an issue.
One of the owners, Jean-Marc Houmard, was making the rounds throughout the evening, and credit where it's due: He wasn't spending the evening hobnobbing with the fabulously dressed, making the scene. You could see that whoever he was talking to, he always had one eye on them and the other on the room, keeping a watch on things, making sure everything was running smoothly - it seemed as though they knew it was going to popular, but maybe not AS popular as it was right out of the gate, and they weren't QUITE prepared for it. I'm happy for him and his success - he's not some trust-fund kid who opened a club that was immediately dubbed a "scene" by the Nightliferati simply by virtue of its owner having a couple of B-list celebrity friends. This is a guy who started as a waiter in the 80s and worked his way up, and he takes his business seriously, so kudos to him.
But this is Chowhound, and you want to know about the food, I suppose.
Well, it's very good.
Chef Refslund is making local/seasonal "New American" cuisine, for sure, but it's firmly rooted in Claus Meyer's "New Nordic" movement as well. Granted, Meyer's manifesto is about 90% overlap with the Slow Food one, but there are certain Scandinavian touches that differentiate it: the food is light, and uses very little extraneous fat or oil. There aren't any heavy butter-based sauces or strong reductions. There's a greater embrace of tart and bitter notes than one sees in most European cuisine, and a refined use of charring as a flavor element, not just as a cooking method. Refslund is a master of carmelization. He has an innate understanding of how far to push the Maillard reaction on any given component.
Rather than do a regular app / entree / dessert, we just ordered a bunch of stuff that looked good and told the kitchen to send it out in whatever order they felt was best.
Our first course consisted of grilled country bread with squash and brie. Not something I would have normally ordered, given than we get (very good) bread at the table anyway, and brie is something I associate with 1980s weddings, but it caught my girlfriend's eye. It was was very good, though - the bread had picked up a lovely smoky char from the grill, though it didn't quite rival ABC Kitchen's squash toast, a big brunch favorite of mine. I like that ABC's is cut with a bit of vinegar, lightening what's a fairly carb-heavy dish (bread and squash are not a natural combination), and this was certianly richer, what with the cheese and all. I don't know that I'd order it as part of meal again, but it'd make a great bar snack were I to pop in for a cocktail and a small bite. Along with this were our two seafood apps - the house-cured salmon and already-becoming-famous Barley & Clams. The salmon was excellent quality, srved with crunchy paper-thin raw cabbage and a light buttermilk-horseradish dressing. Well-seasoned, very tasty, if nothing earth-shattering. I would not have minded had the horseradish been a bit more pronounced. The Barley & Clams, though, were fantastic. This was not a complex dish - the barley is cooked until creamy, like a risotto, tossed with clams and all served with a "sunflower broth" and braised artichokes. It's a little odd on paper - clams, barley, artichokes? Nothing sounds wrong about it, but it's not exactly an intuitive combo, either. They work marvelously together, though. It's a wonderful, hearty bowl, perfect for a cold winter evening. I wish there'd been more sunflower seeds in there - they were little delights when you found yourself crunching into one, giving an extra texture and burst of nutty flavor. This is a dish that at first bite I was like, "this is okay" - and then it grew on me more and more the more I ate. By the time we finished it, I was ready to order another had we not had more food on the way.
Our second course consisted of everything in the "soil" category - three different root veggies (carrots, sunchokes, and beets), each plate the size of an app or side dish - plus the sea bass entree. Once again, like with the coutry bread, char was a major flavor component. The carrots were magnificent: a blackened exterior, then split down the middle and draped with a translucent sheet of lardo, laid out in a shallow pool of blood-orange vinaigrette, sprinkled with what I first thought was some kind of baby rosemary but turned out to be pine. Naturally sweet, smoky with a touch of that wonderful char, a bit richness from the lardo, the mild resiny flavor of the pine sneaking through every few bites. The sunchokes, described as "hay roasted" also had that blackened outer edge - in this case, though, the interior had achieved a near cream-like consistency under the slightly-chewy skin. The tiny chokes, black on the outside, looked like little black truffles under the foam of gruyere that enshrouded them - a nice little (I assume intentional) touch, as the foam had also been scented with a bit of the ol' Tartufo Nero. The salt-roasted beets, while I wouldn't call them a dud, were a bit less than exciting. It was a pretty dish, with a few different shades of beet going on in there, but it wasn't anything I couldn't make at home, nor did it have any particular creative twist. It was just... a nice bowl of roasted beets. There was some bits of fruit in there that were delicious, and had a great, slightly chewy texture - we couldn't figure out what they were, there was a kind of berry-like sweetness and a tiny hint of bitter to it, but the texture was making it very hard to place. Turns out, looking at the menu later, it was grapefruit - I don't what he'd done to them (compressed, I'm guessing?) but they took an entirely new, interesting form. Even now I'm having a hard time associating the mouthfeel of those nuggets with grapefruit. I'd love to see them as the center of a dish, maybe a dessert.
The one proper entree dish was a winner, though. The sea bass was perfectly cooked, and had a full interplay of tart, sweet, salty, and bitter - pickled tomatillos brough the tart, a hint of vanilla and cardamom (and anise? there seemed to be a touch of that in there) the sweet, a well-seasoned fish the salt and dandelion greens a refreshing bitter crunch. Was it the most complex dish ever? No. But it was just what it needed to be.
After seven dishes, we passed on dessert. But we're more the sort who'd order an extra round of apps instead of dessert, anyway.
All in all, excellent food for the price. In some ways it reminds me of what Philip Kirschen-Clark was doing in the early days at Vandaag, and at the same price point give or take - and with PKC's jumping the Vandaag ship, it could very well take their place in our regular rotation. But it's - and this isn't a derogatory remark in any way - simpler in some ways. The dishes are very clean, with no extraneous ingredients. It's interesting, having a chef roll into town with Noma on his resume, I'm sure people were expecting something a bit more avant-garde, perhaps. But this is American seasonal respect-the-ingredient comfort food, very much of the zeitgeist, just filtered through a Scandinavian culinary philosophy. Moreso than Vandaag, if I'd compare it to any other place (as far as the food on the plate goes) it'd probably be Momofuku Ssam Bar - only with Nordic influences lurking in the background rather than Asian ones. It's absolutely in the high-two-stars range, some dishes three-star, nearly all batting above their price point handily. (Not that they should raise prices, mind you...)
I have no doubt that Refslund is capable of doing three-star food (or even four-star food), but it looks like for now he's comfortable where he is, keeping things fairly simple. Maybe down the road there'll be a special chef's tasting menu or something, where he pushes the boundaries a bit more? I'd certainly be right there in line for it.
Is it perfect? Not quite. Chef Refslund can be a little heavy-handed with the salt. Not to the point where anything was "too salty" but skirting the edge of that line a couple times. Eaten on its own, some might have found the fish a little strong on the sodium, but when taking a bite of everything together - fish, tomatillo, dandelion - it all balanced just right. A few bites of the sunchokes, as well, seemed to have a stronger salt presence than others. And given the location of our table, surrounded on two sides by bar patrons - and this is no fault of the kitchen, servers, or staff - it kind of led to a feeling of being rushed, caught up in that faster "bar" vibe when we were looking for more of a languid, "dining" vibe. Even the actual walk-in tables up front in the bar proper felt better insulated from the human traffic than ours was, oddly. Perhaps because they had a wall on one side - while at a floating table, there's hubbub in every direction.
And as I said earlier, it seemed as if they weren't quite prepared for the mob scene. There was a slight lack of communication between servers - it felt as if they had too many people trying to do the same thing, and at times no one was sure who'd already taken care of what. This only became apparent after dinner. There was a minor issue at one point involving a cocktail - my second, the "Upstate Affair" (not as good as the Graffiti Green, but not bad) arrived as we were still perusing the menu, and after one sip I noticed a rather sharp chip at the top of the glass - no big deal, it happens sometimes, and after we ordered our food we sent it back. Someone who appeared to be the maitre'd (he was wearing a suit, not the regular waiter's garb) took care of it. Unfortunately, no new cocktail appeared - which in the end was fine, as far as the meal went, as rather quickly the food began arriving and I wanted to switch over to wine or beer anyway (Brooklyn Winter, I went with - an excellent choice, the toasty-warm notes went wonderfully with the hearty, seasonal root-veg heavy winter cuisine) - anyway, after a bit we pointed out the missing cocktail to the maybe-maitre'd and he was really good about it. I cut them some slack on account of how busy it was. He took it - AND all the rest of our beverages, which he certainly didn't need to to - off the bill, AND brought me a replacement cocktail, AND offered to cover us a round in the lounge downstairs after dinner.
Well, I joked with my girlfriend that I suspected that the drink in the louge wouldn't happen - not that he wasn't sincere, but he had a LOT on his plate. There was no way he was going to be able to take himself out of the dining room to push his way to the front, let the doorman to the seperate lounge entrance know to let some tall guy with a short girl in, let alone somehow inform the bartender in said lounge that there were comped drinks for said random tall guy and short girl, or even when they'd get down there as we hadn't even finished dinner at that point - he simply had too much on his plate. And, as I suspected, when we got to the lounge entrance they just looked at us a bit confused and told us we'd have to wait, and who was it that said we were clear to go down there? ("Uh, the guy with the beard... ?")
Which was fine - he MORE than made things right for the cocktail mix-up. We're not the sorts who fish for comps, not even remotely. I even poo-poo the idea sometimes, insist on paying for comps if they were things we'd actually ordered, etc. So I hesitated to even mention the incident, as I wouldn't want encourage potential diners who ARE comp-fishers (and there are some out there) going in and trying to take advantage. But the truth is - that was good service, and it should be noted. They're a hot-spot out of the gate, this year's Minetta Tavern or Dutch, they don't NEED to worry about a customer being lost in the chaotic shuffle here or there, as they're going to be packed for the next year - but they went over and above, regardless.
Will we be back? Hell yeah. Probably on a weeknight, to see what it's like when the vibe is a little less sceney and a little more restauranty. And again on a weekend, I'm sure, though with a group - it seems a good place for that, plus it'd guarantee a table further into the dining room...
Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003
113 MacDougal St, New York, NY 10012
9 Great Jones St, New York, NY 10012
35 E 18th St, New York, NY 10003
103 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003