Over the past few weeks, we have had the pleasure of dining at Danny Meyer and Flyod Cardoz's newest restaurant, North End Grill, on several occasions. Located in Battery Park City, the restaurant is part of a larger re-development project, at 102 North End Ave, which includes 2 other Danny Meyer restaurants and the ultra-lux Conrad Hotel.
Meyer hired the design firm of Bentel and Bentel to outfit the restaurant, which consists of a scotch/wine bar, a dining bar and a more formal dining room.
Women's Wear Daily called the design a "feast for the eyes". But in many ways, this is a more apt description of the food. The restaurant's interior design is more akin to a visual tabula rasa, upon which new ideas can be projected.
The designers chose a mostly dark, monochromatic color palate, which is evocative of a 'blank slate'. Sharp lines (set against warm white panels) draw the eyes to the open kitchen, a wall of scotch bottles and Marianna Cook's hauntingly beautiful black and white photography. The panels also anchor the space, much like the steel trusses which support the Freedom Tower, one block away.
Dark wood is seen throughout the interior, a nod to the wood burning grill and the dark coals that it produces. Baskets of grape vine, from Macari Vineyards on Eastern Long Island, quietly underscore the restaurant's committment to small farmers.
To complete the look, domed ligting fixtures stand at attention, like wild mushrooms growing in the forest.
On most nights, the Executive Chef Floyd Cardoz can be seen in the kitchen with his highly talented cook staff. The center of the open kitchen is an impressive wood burning grill, which hails from Texas. The grill has three grates, all of which can be raised (or lowered) by the wheels that flank either end. The 'coals' from the wood also heat an oven, which is used to cook pizza and roast seafood (among other things).
The Dinner Menu is divided into 5 sections including Appetizers, Eggs, Salad, Entrees, 'X2', and Sides -- with a separate Dessert Menu.
Several commentators have noted that the North End menu 'plays it safe'. And quite frankly, I am not sure which restaurant they have dined in. It is true that Floyd is (mostly) using traditional proteins, but what he is doing with them is something special. I have been particularly impressed by the subtle complexity of his dishes. Flyod Cardoz is not Jean-George Vongerichten. His food does not hit you over the head. Rather, you pick up a delicate herb here, a little acidity and heat there. It is just lovely.
The same thoughtful, restrained approach is seen at the grill, where Cardoz is using reduced tempertures and aromatic woods (grapevine and white oak) to impart flavor to partially roasted meats and (uncooked) seafood.
Here is a smattering of what we sampled:
Cod Throat Meunier is a tour de force.
More commonly referred to as "cod tongue", this delicate (triangular) piece of fish is cut from the bottom jaw. The print to the left nicely illustrates where the cut of fish is taken from.
Cod tongue is traditionally breaded and pan fried in salt pork. For those of you who have never had it, the cut is all but two bites. When properly prepared, the outside is crisp and the inside has 2 small nuggets of meat which rest in a small gelatinous sac. Many people compare the texture to that a fried oyster.
The cod throat we sampled was perfectly crisp, with no hint of sogginess or heaviness from the fat. It was nominally plated on a meunier sauce. But if you are expecting a simple brown sauce, you will be pleasantly surprised here. This sauce is exceptionally rich, due to the addition of veal stock, and has a touch of heat from Mexican chiles.
After the cod throat is finished, I promise you will use any means possible (including a spoon, bread or your fingers) to finish off this sauce.
Torchon of Foie Gras was expertly prepared, and luscious. I was less smittened with the quince paste, which I found esthetically unappealing and well, pasty. (The texture reminded me of pumpkin puree.) In my opinion, this lovely torchon would be much better served with a sweeter, more refined accompaniment -- such as a bourbon poached pear, or a port wine reduction.
With that said, this dish is an extremely good value. The kitchen sends out a very generous portion (which can easily be shared by two people) and only charges $18. Ai Fiori is currently charging $28 for a comparable dish.
Tuna Tartare with Fried Quail Egg and Crispy Shallots is exceptional. A touch of heat, delicate herbs and crunchy shallots nicely compliment the hand chopped tuna -- but do not overwhelm it. The same can be said of the egg yolk, which adds a subtle touch of richness to the dish.
Coddled Egg, Peekytoe Crab, Bacon and Grits could easily be a breakfast for champions.
Ouefs en Cocotte, or eggs cooked in a ramekin, can harbor endless surprises. Cardoz's rendition starts with a base of freshly prepared grits, upon which he layers smoky bacon, sweet Peekytoe Crab and an egg. Salt, freshly ground pepper and chopped chives finish off the dish.
This dish is remarkably rich, but lacks the heaviness of many preparations which use copious amounts of butter and cream. Be sure to save a piece of crusty bread for dunking!
Although the restaurant places an emphasis on seafood, a number of lovely meat dishes are offered as well. Elysian Fields Lamb Loin with Minted Chickpeas and Preserved Lemon is an excellent case in point.
The star of this dish is the double-cut Elysian Fields lamb loin, which is briefly roasted on the bone and then finished on the grill. This grain fed lamb is nothing short of perfection. It has a firm tooth, but is extremely tender and succulent. It is also lacks the strong, gamey taste of New Zealand grass fed lamb.
White beans are often seen on upscale menus (even this one), but chickpeas are rarely used. Cardoz nails this dish, integrating herbs (mint, a touch of chervil) and acidity (preserved lemons) which compliment both the beans and the lamb. My palate also picked up a touch of heat from the beans, which I loved.
Berkshire Pork Chop with White Beans and Chorizo is another beautifully conceived dish.
The dish is served with a lovely pork jus and apple cider reduction, which is rich but not overly sweet or clowy. The beans, homemade chorizo and sauted greens are also wonderful.
Unfortunately, my pork was served hopelessly over-cooked. In hindsight, this miss fire seemed almost inevitable on a busy Friday night. The kitchen is using an exceptionally thin cut of pork, which is lean and cut off the bone. Given this, there is no little margin for error. An extra minute or two on the grill, or at the pass, and this little piggy is toast.
In my opinion, a (more traditional) center cut chop, on the bone, would easily solve this problem. But whatever the kitchen decides, I know they will work out this kink.
This dish is a definite keeper.
Nova Scotia Lobster with Tropea Shallots and Lemon Butter was a simple, but well executed dish.
The kitchen uses a minimal amount of lemon butter to prepare the lobster, which serves the fish well. We enjoyed the sweet, succulent meat with a glass of dry champagne.
Unfortunately, we did not have much luck with the potatoe side dishes. The Grilled Rosemary Potat Chips arrived at the table thoroughly desiccated, without a hint of olive oil or salt. Others have complimented this dish, so I have to assume this was just a fluke.
We sent Thrice Fried Spiced Fries back to the kitchen, as they were undercooked and soggy. The replacement were a tad more crisp, but still under cooked and excessively salty. (A few others have noted the same.) Fries are really tough to get right, but I am confident that this interesting side will come together as the kitchen settles in.
After the food, it is difficult to find room for dessert. With that said, we sampled two things.
Chocolate Pecan Layer Cake with Pecan Chocolate Chip Ice Cream is rich, but not overly sweet. The 'cake' (torte) is very moist, and the candied pecan add textural interest to the desert. We detected only one minor issue with the torte: the chocolate ganache was quite rubbery.
The Roasted Apple Tart with Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream and Dry Fruit Compote is a real keeper. The baked apple was luscious, with a hint of sweetness and a bit of spice. We also loved the flavorful pastry cream at the base of the tart. The fruit compote, made of apples and currents, was well prepared but almost superfluous. The real star of this show is the tart.
The restaurant offers a nice selection of wines by the glass, which represent different regions and grape varietals. (I have not explored the wine list in any great detail, but look forward to doing so soon.) There are also a nice selection of scotch cocktails, and of course many different scotches by the glass!
We have not eaten in the dining room to date, but the service at the dining bar has been top notch. North End has an early bar crowd, which can get a little loud, but the noise levels off after 8PM.
In summary, it is hard to believe that North End Grill has been open for less than one month. There are a few minor kinks which need to be worked out, but overall, this kitchen is operating at an extremely high level. Battery Park City and Downtown Manhatten are trully fortunate to have them.