Rotisserie Beets with Creamed Horseradish
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting for John Fraser to open another restaurant for six years now. Fraser’s first solo debut, Dovetail, opened at the tail end of 2007 to pretty sparkling reviews (aside from some pokes at the dull decor, myself included). In fact, some called Fraser a pioneer, one of the first pedigreed, young toques to trailblaze his way to the once sleepy Upper West Side, where so many have followed suit over the years. But he’s finally and smartly taken his talents downtown to the funky East Village to take a stab at a somewhat haunted space in André Balazs’ Standard Hotel with his new project, Narcissa.
I remember when Govind Armstrong tried his luck in the very same space with Table 8, (which failed miserably) and was quickly followed by Scott Conant’s Faustina just a few years ago in what was until recently the Cooper Square Hotel. At the end of the day, it felt like one of those lonely, sterile hotel restaurants, certainly not the kind of stage that was worthy of Conant’s exemplary cooking. Eventually, Faustina shuttered and the hotel became a Standard.
Fraser’s Crab Salad
Talk about an exorcism. Narcissa is a real looker. It’s that idyllic combination of romantic, warm, and charming– the kind of place you can hang out with friends or snuggle with your significant other over dinner. The restaurant’s divided into two dining rooms, one, a more casual cafe with an open kitchen, outfitted with French Bonnet rotisserie ovens on full display, wood booths, a marble eating counter, and stone floors. The other room is cozier and a bit more serious, with comfy blue & white striped banquettes, a handsome, herringbone wood ceiling, windows onto a private garden, and a sleek, wood-topped bar.
After living in Los Angeles for over four years, I’ve had a soft spot for California cuisine, a ‘let the ingredients shine’ approach to cooking, utilizing mostly seasonal and local produce. (Think Alice Waters at Chez Panisse.) We don’t have many restaurants that subscribe to this “healthful” brand of cooking, so it’s refreshing when a California-born chef like John Fraser brings something new to New York’s collective table. Narcissa is named after a cow on Andre Balazs’ Hudson Valley farm, where they source both dairy and produce for the menu. Fraser’s always had a thing for vegetables, being one of the first chefs to offer a meatless Monday vegetarian tasting menu at Dovetail before it was the ‘thing’ to do.
Fluke Crudo with Broccoli Pesto
I don’t eat beets because I frankly can’t stand them, and yet I oddly can’t stop thinking about the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets I had at Narcissa. I reluctantly ordered them because everyone said, “You have to get the beets,” though I wasn’t expecting much. The reason I hate beets, especially raw ones, is because they’re too damn sweet and tend to overwhelm everything partnered with them. But Fraser roasts the crap out of these huge red beets, resulting in a thick, beautifully charred exterior, then marries them with Bulgur, Apples and a delicious kick of Creamed Horseradish — a vivacious mix I could eat year round.
As a tried-and-true meat, fish, and poultry eater, I’m the last person to wax rhapsodic about vegetables (though I wholly respect and eat them often), but you could easily have a great meal at Narcissa and not touch a meat or a fish. (Did I really just write that?) Start with the Rotisserie-Grilled Sweet Potato with jerk spices and tofu aioli, the Narcissa Salad, a melange of farm greens, pistachios, gouda, and burdock, or the Potato Gnocchi with Swiss Chard and Chestnuts. And as far as entrees go, how about Beef Wellington sans the beef? Fraser swaps in Carrots for tenderloin, coats them in a pate made of bluefoot mushrooms and sunchokes, rolls it in a puff pastry, then bakes it up and sauces it with a gremolata. Really, the only veggie-centric dish I didn’t care for was the Carrot Fries, which come a little too battered for my taste. Skip the fries and try the Creamed Spinach instead, crowned with homemade potato chips (not a bad dip idea).
Bone-In Rib Eye
Trying to forget the dregs of winter, if only for an hour or two? I suggest getting lost in Fraser’s Crab Salad, a refreshing tangle of Dungeness Crab, blood orange, hearts of palm, and toasted hazelnuts. Or the Fluke Crudo, delicate petals of fluke, flavored with a nutty broccoli pesto and a smart scattering of pine nuts, made all the more interesting by a sneaky addition of chile flakes in the pesto. The Salad of Brussels Sprout Leaves, albeit wintry, is a blissfully complicated mix of paper thin radish, apple, manchego cheese, prosciutto and toasted sunflower seeds.
Fraser’s gnocchi is the not comfort food kind. Nope. This is a deliciously herbaceous bowl of pasta, perfumed with oodles of sage and scattered with julienned swiss chard, chestnut, and sweet bits of orange. If you’re looking for something a little more comforting, try the Barley Risotto with tender little neck clams, leeks, oregano, and an ample dose of chile to keep you on your toes.
It seems like everyone’s got a Rotisserie section of the menu these days with a mandatory, oft gussied up Roast Chicken. Forget chicken. I’m obsessed with rotisserie duck. (I recently had a wonderful version with a huckleberry glaze at Rotisserie Georgette.) Fraser’s version is an incredibly juicy duck bread, sliced and plated over a gingery butternut squash puree with a cranberry reduction, teasing maximum sweetness from the meat. And while it’s hard to distinguish yourself in a city where a whole fish is nearly a dime a dozen, Fraser does just that with an impeccably moist, Whole Rotisserie Branzino, fileted in the kitchen, topped with arugula and sauced with a vibrant herb vinaigrette. On my second visit, I discovered a brand, new dish that had just made its way onto the menu of Maine Sea Scallops, pan-seared and perched over Spaghetti Squash and Golden Beets. The crowning touch is sautéed Green Garlic with Pickled Peppercorns, an arresting addition that takes the dish to another level of goodness.
Parsnip & Carrot Cake
The thing about Narcissa is there really is something for everyone, be it a vegetarian, pescatarian, or even a carnivore. In fact, if you’re the steakhouse type (I sometimes am), I highly recommend the sliced Bone-In Rib Eye, accompanied by Sea Salt Potatoes with Shishito Peppers & a crispy, gem lettuce salad.
I was surprised to find Deborah Racicot at the pastry station at Narcissa. (She was last seen at Red Rooster and Gotham Bar & Grill). Here, she experiments with a “Winter Sundae,” a sweet mess of Olive Oil Ice Cream, doused with meyer lemon curd and an ethereal, lemon-thyme whipped cream, a deconstructed Parsnip-Carrot cake of sorts, consorting with cream cheese icing and grated, shredded carrots and golden raisins, and my favorite, a Bittersweet Chocolate Tart, paired with Espresso Ice Cream & Curry-Roasted Bananas, which works wonders to offset the sweetness of the tart.
While Fraser’s style is undeniably refined (after all he trained under Thomas Keller for two years), it’s also wonderfully playful. With his move downtown, he seems to have lightened up his cooking, both literally and figuratively, which is a very good thing nowadays. And while it may be a tad too early to say for sure, it seems like the curse of this restaurant space may have finally come to end. Selfishly speaking, I hope so because I’ve fallen hard for Fraser’s Rotisserie Duck, Fluke Crudo, and reluctantly, even his Beets.