Normally, when I think of prunes my first thought is the familiar TV commercial showing the side-by-side comparison of someone experiencing “bloating and discomfort” and someone enjoying the verve and gaiety brought on by just one bowlful of California prunes. However, since last Thursday, my first thought is now “when can I have some more?”. No, dear readers, this change of heart wasn’t brought on by relief from a particularly vicious and lengthy case of colonic log-jam, it was caused by my first visit to what is now my new favorite restaurant in New York City.
Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton’s widely-revered nouveau American place on East 1st Street has been called a lot of things since it opened in 1999 – among them, “phenomenal” and “inspired” (NYMagazine), “wonderful food” (BlogSoop.com) and “immediate success” (NYC.com), and rightly so, in my humble opinion. Generally, we aren’t attracted to, can’t afford, and don’t really desire to visit big-name chef’s big-name restaurants and pay big-name prices for big-name signature dishes, all the while praying for the merest glimpse of said big-name chef, and this is precisely why our first review of a well-known (outside of NYC) restaurant is Prune and not Mesa Grill, Babbo, or Jean-Georges.
Owner and chef Gabrielle Hamilton, my wife’s new girl-crush, describes her aim when she started Prune as wanting “…an unassuming way to slip into the shallow end of the pool of New York City restaurants”, and she appears to have achieved this in Prune‘s unassuming feel, no more than 10 tables, the austere, French-brasserie-style decor, and the small menu. Of course, Hamilton has also taken the restaurant scene by storm, serving simple, tasty dishes with a gusto that befits their often hearty, gamey ingredients, and in doing so, she has been widely emulated.
In his forward to Fergus Henderson’s St. John Bar and Restaurant cookbook The Whole Beast: Eating Nose to Nail, Anthony Bourdain says that Henderson’s signature dish of roasted veal marrow bones with parsley salad would be his last meal should he find himself moments away from the electric chair, adding that he was delighted upon finding an exact recreation of this in New York because he felt he had found a “kindred-spirit” who “gets it” – namely, Gabrielle Hamilton. This should not imply that Hamilton simply serves excellent knock-offs of other people’s food, but rather that the rediscovery of unpretentious, traditional dishes made from less popular cuts is now a growing trend in the UK and US because of people like Henderson and Hamilton.
Readers of this blog with any sense of our body of work and culinary proclivities will know that while we do not disdain chicken breasts and filet mignons, we are interested in exploring the eating and cooking of other parts of the beast, not because we are food fashion conscious, but rather because we understand that it takes more skill to make offal taste good than it does to present a fat fillet, and, as we said in our first podcast on rabbit, we believe it’s foolish and represents a small-minded snobbery to restrict yourself to prime cuts of the chicken, cow and pig. So, a trip to Prune was long overdue.
Amy chose the deep-fried sweetbreads (described by one peevish restaurant reviewer as Kentucky Fried sweetbreads) with bacon and a caper-lemon butter sauce, while I made like Bourdain and chose the veal marrow bones with parsley salad. The sweetbreads resembled nothing I’ve seen at KFC and, frankly, such a description is insulting. They were crispy, light, and tender inside with a sauce that had the tangy flavor of lemon and capers rounded out with the ineffable goodness that is a lot of butter. The marrow bones initially appeared slightly intimidating, especially when served with a small ramekin of what looked like fleur de sel, but armed with nothing but a teaspoon we bravely attacked them, bringing forth an amazingly translucent animal fat/juice along with the soft, gloopy, simultaneously sweet and savory wonder that is bone-marrow. Sucking the bones proved irresistible so tasty were they, and in the quest for that one last morsel greasy fingers slipped, knocking salt ramekin and contents onto an alarmed, but gracious adjacent diner. “But, what of the parsley salad?”, I hear you say. Well, of course, it was delicious too. A simple dressing of oil and lemon juice over a salad of flat-leaf parsley, thinly-sliced shallot and crunchy bites of cornichons (baby gherkins) complimented the rich and glutinous bone marrow perfectly. I can imagine making this salad with virtually any kind of roasted or grilled red meat or game, and I would guess we’ll be recreating it on these pages very soon.
While we readied ourselves for the arrival of our main courses, we struck up a conversation with two of our fellow diners (on the opposite side to those we had just showered with expensive salt). James, a soon-to-be food journal publisher from London, and his native New Yorker companion, Brian, had eaten at Prune before and while they also had the sweetbreads to start, they had the monkfish liver with warm buttered toasts in place of our marrow bones. “It’s quite oily and, er, liverish.” was James’ assessment of the latter dish, and you can’t argue with that.
As our main dishes arrived, Brian and James were experimenting with a very yellow wine from south-west France that was fermented in open barrels allowing it to oxidize and develop a more astringent flavor. The waiter described it as the “wild-west of wine-making” which, to anyone with the briefest understanding of the American frontier, would have connoted the brawny perfume of unwashed cowboys, saddle-grease and rotting chuck-steak. Happily for our erstwhile companions, it was only rather tart, like a young scrumpy cider, but they found it not to their taste, offering us a go on it, perhaps as a way of getting rid the quicker. I could have drunk a glass of it, but a bottle would likely have turned my mouth inside out.
Amy had ordered the rabbit in vinegar sauce and I the grilled quail with braised escarole and raisins on the vine for our main courses. My quails were perfectly grilled. Crispy-skinned with a hint of heat from red pepper flakes, but beautifully pink and moist inside. They were gamey and delicate, more like squab than any quail I’ve had before. Amy’s rabbit was, well, better than the one we made recently (even though that was very good) perhaps because of the oodles of butter in the sweet and sour vinegar sauce which also contained some warm whole cornichons — an unexpected, but highly successful addition. Our side dish of steamed asparagus tips (which could have used a little salt) came with an egg yolk (the white having been cut away) for dipping which we both thought was ingenious and delicious.
Meanwhile, James and Brian were enjoying their mains, respectively steamed razor clams with an almond-chili picada, and grilled branzino with fennel oil and gros sel. The clams and fish both looked excellent, especially the branzino which was charred to a dark, rich patina on the outside but remained white, flaky and moist on the inside. Their side dish was the particularly unusual boiled fennel shoots, which had a crunchy, wholesomeness rarely found in restaurant side dishes where the flavor of vegetables is usually masked by garlic, spice or a sauce.
As we concluded our meal with a distinctly average chocolate cake that was too dry, but with two excellent digestifs – mine an eaux de vie from Oregon made from pears, and Amy’s, her favorite, sambuca, we chatted some more with James and Brian about food and food culture in Britain and America. James argued that he thought Britain was slightly ahead of the states in terms of regaining its endemic food culture and reviving typical products. Perhaps it’s true that America, as a whole, has yet to rediscover its culinary roots and return to them in the whole-hearted way the British have – though many areas of the East and West coasts have been doing this for some time. But I would argue that any restaurant, chef or restaurateur who wishes to focus on quality local ingredients and traditional techniques should first eat at Prune and see how deliciously it can be done. Emulation is no bad thing if you get it bang on, and, for me, I would be perfectly happy if I never got to eat Fergus Henderson’s original bone-marrow dish at St. John in London, if I could dine on perfect knock-offs like Gabrielle Hamilton’s twenty minutes from my front door.
I think we’ll let the debate about where gastronomy is and should be heading, who’s in the lead, and who’s falling behind rage elsewhere. Our blog is not the forum for food snobs to poke holes in the successes and failures of various chefs, rather it is the place where we honestly appraise meals we’ve eaten whether we’ve cooked them ourselves or enjoyed the work of others. In this case, I cannot speak highly enough of our visit to Prune and I would encourage you all to give it a try if you’re prepared to be a little adventurous in your eating. This isn’t grilled locusts in peri-peri, this is honest-to-goodness food, simply prepared and given the respect it is due.
Although we haven’t made roasted bone marrow yet in our little kitchen, two food-blog friends did and I think they both look absolutely delicious. You can check out the first recipe here and please visit our friend Claudia’s Fergus Henderson recipe here.
Prune, 54 East 1st Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenue, New York. F, V trains to 2nd Avenue/Houston or 6 train to Bleeker/Lafayette. Reservations are recommended. Lunch 11:30 – 3:00 p.m. Mon-Fri; Dinner 6:00 – 11:00 p.m. Mon-Thur, 6:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m. Fri-Sat, 5:00 – 10:00 p.m. Sun; Brunch 10:00 – 3:30 p.m. Sat-Sun.