The East Village is arguably New York’s top dining destination right now, with more than its share of noteworthy newcomers (Tuome, Huertas, King Bee, GG’s, Bowery Meat Company, Root and Bone, & Empellon al Pastor), and just as many seminal institutions (Russ & Daughters, Prune, & Momofuku Noodle Bar). But the restaurant we’re most excited about hasn’t made anyone’s “hot” list yet, which means you can actually still snag a prime time table. Of course, we’re expecting that will change in relatively short order, because a young chef called Ian Alvarez — formerly of Momofuku and Brooklyn’s Buttermilk Channel — is making some of the very best food we’ve had in recent memory, at the charming, French-cum-Japanese inspired Bara.
Although it bills itself as cross between a Parisian wine bar and a Japanese izakaya, don’t expect kitschy, straight down the middle fusion. Because as his resume would suggest, Alvarez is an expert at building highly nuanced, beautifully balanced and painstakingly developed flavors, underscored by admirable technique.
You’d be wise to start with a firm, fluted Pemaquid Oyster, the assertive brine adding oomph to a crystal slick of delicate water kimchi. A finely diced puck of Mackerel Tataki is reinforced by bouncy roe, but the double dose of fish funk is smartly tamed by pungent horseradish, a brightly acidic puddle of ponzu, and snowdrifts of lacy crisped rice. And while it’s hard to get overly enthused by cold weather vegetables, like carrots and endive, you’d be remiss not to order Alvarez’ Salad, enlivened by a thick dressing, made with fragrant sesame oil and smoky umeboshi. It might just be our new, go-to way to prepare roasted carrots; tossing them with a puree of sweet, salted plums.
You probably caught a whiff of stock simmering away on the stove the second you walked through the door; so it’s hard to say no to the egg, nori and Tokyo turnip-studded Chicken Soup, which is savory, salty, a little bit spicy, and just a touch sour, effectively clearing a straight path through your sinuses. In the mood for noodles? Don’t forget that Alvarez is a Momofuku vet, hand-pulling strands of buckwheat pasta for a hearty ragu of short ribs, crowned with a trio of whole, black-eyed prawns (be sure to suck the juicy heads)! And while we never really jumped on the Pork Belly bandwagon, Bara’s well-rendered version underlines why it’s oft referred to as pig candy; you’ll be picking sugary, porcine shards of out of your molars for minutes after.
The East Village is essentially point zero for the best fried chicken in the city, and while we can’t imagine Bara’s bird isn’t memorable, don’t sleep on the scarlet slabs of Flat Iron Steak — which come slathered in sticky house Worcestershire sauce, strewn with wilted stems of broccoli rabe and finished (in a show of delectable divine decadence) with a whole, tender grilled oyster. But whatever protein you choose (or however much stomach space you have left), a side of Fingerling Potatoes is an absolute must; smashed and fried into patties, paved with yuzu koshu mayo, and dusted with gently undulating bonito flakes, they’ll make you want to reconsider that steak frites dinner at nearby Cherche Midi.
Worried that all this food will break the bank? Not only are the generously sized plates eminently affordable (topping out at $22), but Bara currently offers one of the most economical prix fixes in town, with five courses (including a lovely tea service, and ethereal Red Bean Macarons) commanding only $55, plus an optional $25 for wine pairings (a thoughtful selection of unpasteurized sakes and organic ciders, curated by French Louie’s Kyle Storm).
For Alvarez’ sake, we hope this wildly inventive yet wholly unpretentious gem eventually gets the attention it so deserves. But for purely selfish reasons, we’d like to think that we’ll always have a table waiting for us at Bara.