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eater’s digest: northern spy food co.

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

As a food writer, it’s easy to to fall into a habit of extremes, toggling from insatiable to oversaturated. This is typically the curse of chasing trends, following the buzz or, worse yet, a desire to be the first to discover a new, unsung food locale. But then there are the restaurants we discover off-the-clock. The plates that satiate us, without leaving us feeling stuffed. The mouthfuls that remind us why we got excited by food in the first place—which, for me, has nothing to do with standing in line three hours for a cronut.

My food appreciation began with the ingredients at my disposal and the thrill of testing out a new flavor or texture—most especially, those with a specific taste of place. In short, I fell hard for cooking with local ingredients, and the chefs who thrill me most are the ones who revive that feeling of discovery.

Porgy with fava and yellow eyed beans in green garlic broth

Porgy with fava and yellow eyed beans in green garlic broth

In Manhattan, Northern Spy Food Co. is a singular example of this type of restaurant. Over the past year, I’ve eaten there four times—more any other restaurant, except maybe the more casual Co. Pane—yet I never got so far as to write a review. They were meals without ulterior motives, an opportunity to indulge in anonymity. In fact, I ate there the way critics would ideally eat at restaurants: often, and casually, without explicit intentions to review them. The true gems are the places that consistently satisfy and surprise you, steeping over time until they blossom into a story.

Let’s start with Northern Spy’s kale salad. Or don’t, in fact. It’s been raved about so often that it overshadows other dishes on the menu – plates like the equally irreplaceable Elysian Fields lamb or smoked bluefish rillettes. In that spirit, I decided on one rule for this review – if I’ve already eaten it, it’s off the table.

And so it was that I started off with pickled eggs. Normally, this wouldn’t be a dish that I’d choose, as all my favorite egg preparations include a runny yolk. Pink with beet juice, they were certainly acidic but also mildly sweet. The yolk maintained a certain creaminess, if the white was a bit more resistant than I’d usually prefer. But I approached them objectively, and they grew on me with each bite, providing yet again that N’Spy sense of discovery, the same that I’d found before.

Chilled watercress soup

Chilled watercress soup

The rest of the dishes were less challenging, but no less interesting. First up, the chilled watercress soup. The texture of this gorgeous pastel palette of food is nothing short of spectacular, coating your mouth with cool green flavor, without the cumbersome weight of cream.

Then came the strawberry salad with goat milk yogurt and fresh herbs. Tart and sweet, it featured both fresh red and pickled green berries, cut with the funkiness of goat cheese, the refreshing crunch of fennel, and the bright, lemony bite of sorrel. I’ll go right ahead and call it the salad of the summer.

Speaking of summer, I highly recommend the refreshing celery tonic cocktail. I’d been eyeing it for months, and it met all my expectations, balancing refreshment with bitter and vegetal notes. For those who like ginger, the Spy Glass is the spicy, fruitier cousin of a Bloody Mary, and also shouldn’t be missed.

northernspy_1

Celery tonic and Spyglass cocktail

Back to the eats, the warm squid salad arrived all tender coils: squid, carrot and daikon radish, garnished with a streak of dark black ink. Accented with the rich flavor of pork belly, it reminded me of a pork and clam dish I once ate in a bistro in Lisbon, a remarkable marriage of land and sea.

For our first entree, we tried the Porgy special—mildly briny and flaky, but more oily than flimsier white fish. Served in a green garlic broth with favas and yellow eyed beans, it was fragrant and comforting, the tender beans yielding beautifully under the impeccably moist, pink-tinged fish.

Broccoli with cabbage, mustard, pretzel

Broccoli with cabbage, mustard, pretzel

But the real scene-stealer was the sleeper on the menu: the broccoli with “cabbage, mustard and pretzel.” If it sounds like a vegetarian beer hall dish, you’re not entirely off track. Tender stalks, breaded and fried in crisp pretzel crumbs, made me wonder if I ever needed to eat juicy sausage again. Negotiating over who would get to drag the last floret through the mustard and pesto sauces, I couldn’t help but think that this was no mere vegetarian alternative. This was a definitive dish – the kind that can make a chef’s career (kale salad be damned).

Ending on a sweet note, (and still entranced by the pretzel-breaded broccoli stalks) we opted for the pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel sauce. A flatter, compact, Scandinavian-style waffle, it brought al dente texture and salt, an excellent contrast to the sticky caramel and creamy, concentrated strawberry scoop. Yet again, we found ourselves bartering for the final bite.

Pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel

Pretzel waffle with strawberry ice cream and caramel

If this sounds like a rave review, it is. I don’t promise that each of your taste buds will explode with new ideas or ingredients, but—like a good tea–the dishes at Northern Spy develop as they steep. Rather than being at their best on the first bite, they evolve as you uncover each layer of complexity. It’s the ultimate in “slow food,” in fact. Not only is it local and sustainable, but you’re best eating it at a leisurely pace, lest you let one of the subtler elements pass you by.

Northern Spy Food Co.
511 E 12th St
(212) 228-5100

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eater’s digest: new york city wine & food festival, part 2

In the flurry of activity that is the New York City Wine & Food Festival – from dinners, to lectures, classes and parties – there is one central stronghold : The Grand Tasting. This tented festival at Pier 57 takes place over two days, featuring small bites from some of the city’s best restaurants, as well as cooking demos from the Food Network’s band of celebrity chefs.

It’s an almost overwhelming celebration of the city’s food, but somebody’s got to taste it. Lucky for me, I’m that somebody. Here’s the rundown on my favorite small bites:

Grilled Thai Sausage Wraps, Kittichai

I’ve always been a fan of thai/larb-inspired lettuce wraps, but Kittichai‘s version was more refreshing than most. An excellent choice for an over-saturated tasting event, with acidity and spice that cut straight to the palate.

Cuban Sandwich, AG Kitchen

This is the second time I’ve sampled newcomer AG Kitchen‘s cuisine, and I have to say, I’m impressed. Sandwiches usually don’t strike me as addictive, but I had to stop myself from grabbing seconds of this spicy, tangy medley of pork, ham, swiss, pickles and hot mustard.

BBQ Brisket, MexiBBQ Kitchen

My main complaint at such tastings is that there’s usually too much meat. But in the case of MexiBBQ, I was more than pleased by the unusual tequila/oregano sauce. Hot and herbaceous in the most unusual way, this was elevated Mexican – comfort food 2.0.

“Papdi Bhalla” Indian Dumplings, Benares

One of the major surprises of my second day at Pier 57 was Benares‘ lentil and potato dumplings. A medley of textures differentiated this surprisingly sweet – but not saccharine – dish from the Indian food I’ve eaten in the past. Definitely a restaurant I’ve added to my list.

Signature Lobster Bisque, Brasserie Cognac

I love lobster bisque, as I do most things seafood-related. But I’ve had enough bad bisques to last a lifetime. Not so with Brasserie Cognac. This thin soup beats out its creamier cousins with the distinct addition of umami, from mushrooms meant to mimic the texture of tender lobster meat.

Scallop Escabeche, Nios Restaurant

At an event where most chefs come at you with a one-two punch, it’s always a surprise – and often a relief – to taste something subtle. Nios set itself apart with medley of fresh, mild flavors that proved more isn’t always more.

“Thai Tao”, Northern Style Chicken, Ember Room

Ian Kittichai managed to show up his namesake’s dish (the aforementioned lettuce wraps) with an even more spicy thai dish from Ember Room. At first, the spice startled, but was quickly – and cleverly – cooled by the bitter crunch of an endive leaf.

Chilled Watercress Soup, Northern Spy Food Co.

In the end, however, there must be a winner – or at least, a dish I wish I could taste again. For me, that was Northern Spy‘s soup. Pickled, but not so much as to be briny, it was an enticing spoonful and a palate cleanser in one. To boot, I’ve yet to taste a less-than-impressive bite at Northern Spy’s day-to-day digs, making for an extra-confident endorsement.

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