I’ll hit a month at my new job this week, and one of the biggest lessons so far has been how little I actually know about food. I suppose it’s all relative (aren’t most things in life?), since I probably know far more about the ins and outs of animation than my new coworkers. But here I am, very much an amateur enthusiast, surrounded by people who have worked in kitchens and front of the house, who can list grape varietals like the names of their nieces and nephews, and could discern a julienne from a brunoise simply by touch. It can be a little intimidating at times, but I generally try to operate with an awareness of my own ignorance. I’d rather be surprised and delighted by something new, rather than rely on incomplete information to make decisions that may prevent discovery.
This all came to mind when thinking back on my recent birthday dinner at Narcissa, a popular farm-to-table restaurant in the Standard East Hotel. When I mentioned to my brother where I would be dining, he said “oh, I guess California cuisine is your favorite, then?” I hemmed and hawed (I hate picking favorites), trying to qualify what appealed to me about Narcissa’s menu (the emphasis on vegetables, the seasonal quality, the unconventional flavor combinations), claiming that it was somehow totally different from the delightful birthday dinner I had at Barbuto last year. But what I really should have said was “maybe.” The truth is I didn’t know the definition of California cuisine (here’s what Wikipedia has to say), and even with a bit of Googling I wouldn’t put all my favorite eggs in that particular basket.
Eh, enough dithering about known unknowns (ain’t that a timely idiom?). Regardless of categorization, I had another fabulous birthday dinner with my parents. Narcissa is certainly a buzzed-about restaurant in NYC right now, and it was lovely to have it live up to, and then exceed the hype.
As I mentioned above, Narcissa is located in the Standard East Hotel, which reopened last year after extensive renovations. The entrance to Narcissa is tucked back behind the more casual restaurant, Cafe Standard, which has sidewalk seating. Narcissa has outdoor seating as well, but it’s made up of a small patio behind the dining room, creating a little oasis from the bustle of the city. I imagine it’d be lovely to sit out there in the sunshine (especially now that the restaurant is serving brunch).
Once you make your way past Cafe Standard, you’re greeted with a doorway surrounded by greenery and topped with a placard that reads Narcissa on a background of rolling farmland. The restaurant sources many of its ingredients from the farm Locusts on Hudson, where the eponymous cow Narcissa lives. Step inside and you’ll find a large open kitchen immediately to your left, maybe half of the size of the whole dining room. I beat both of my parents to the restaurant, and enjoyed watching the cooking and prep in action. To the right is the bar and dining room, decked out in soft white, golds, light woods, and blue-and-yellow striped banquettes. There seemed to be a prevalence of diagonals, from the square space of the room distorted by acutely angled windows, to our table which was not round, but actually octagonal. This lends a modern air to the casual elegance of the decor, which otherwise is kind of rustic chic — wooden/wicker chairs, no tablecloths. The bar area is sizable in itself, taking up about a third of the dining room space, staffed by at least two bartenders at a time to handle the orders of the dozen seats at the bar, collection of tables nearby, and the customers in the dining room.
The staff was friendly and charming from the get-go, offering plenty of advice on cocktails, and ever ready with refilling our (perplexingly tiny) water glasses or fetching us more bread. Throughout the meal our waiter explained each dish to us, even identifying components when we were confused, and even snuck us a few extra treats by the end. My mom was intrigued by the Buttermilk Ice Cream included in the Summer Sundae, but we passed on ordering it, so our waiter brought a tiny sample of it with dessert, alongside the Sundae’s pineapple sorbet. This, combined with the speedy, yet never pushy, service (we were out of there within 2 hours), helped to set a festive and exploratory mood. Plus, I always get a little bit of a kick out of dining at places where they refold your napkin for you — it’s the type of silly decadence that makes eating out an “experience.”
After doing my requisite research and soliciting suggestions from a coworker, I came to my dinner at Narcissa armed with a post-it note crammed with dishes. The bad news is that, as a restaurant focused on seasonal ingredients, many of those items hadn’t made the transition from the Winter to the Summer menu. The good news is the ones that really mattered did, and with a little deliberation and negotiation, my parents and I settled on a repast covering a whole host of both highlighted dishes and unknowns. We decided to start with the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets, the Crab Salad, and the Potato Gnocchi, then I ordered the Lacquered Duck Breast, my mother got the Maine Scallops, and my father chose the Steamed Black Bass, along with a side of Supergreen Spinach for us all to share. Dessert (aside from our ice cream/sorbet sampler) was the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart and the Apricot Tart Tatin.
Our dinner began with a small boule of complimentary herbed sourdough bread, sprinkled with rosemary and served with a side of soft butter. The bread was crusty and crackly on the outside, with a whole wheat interior that was airy and chewy. I was more than happy to eat a piece on its own, though I have no complaints about the creamy fresh butter accompanying it. The bread was also exactly the right type of solid dough to sop up the remaining sauce from the gnocchi after we’d torn through the appetizer’s contents.
Speaking of, the Potato Gnocchi (fava beans, ramps, parmesan) was a solid, straightforward dish, perfectly fine but paling in comparison with our other hors d’oeuvre. The individual pieces of pasta were excellent — delicate little pillows of potato that managed to be chewy without being gummy — and I felt these were the best component. The rest of the pieces were certainly fresh, with the whole fava beans adding a summery brightness, but the broth and the cheese proved a bit too salty for me, and brought down the overall impact of the combination.
If I hadn’t been told to try the Crab Salad (blood orange, hearts of palm, hazelnuts), I probably would have made the mistake of passing it by on the menu, simply because up until this point in my life, I’ve never met a heart of palm I liked. Now thanks to Narcissa, I think I might give them another go. This is a salad in the sense of chicken or tuna salad — hunks of shredded dungeness crab meat stuffed into a petite pot with an overhanging lip, mixed with sliced hearts of palm, pieces of chopped blood orange and hazelnuts, and plenty of sliced basil and parsley on top. The crunch of the nuts and the hearts of palm paired well with the softer textures of the crab and blood orange, and the addition of citrus acidity is always great with seafood. This dish was not a flavor bomb by any means, more about the combination of the ingredients than a hearty slap of crabmeat. My mother was underwhelmed by it, but I thought it was a light dish with a combination of acid, herbs and briny seafood flavors to wake up my palate before the heavier entrees.
Although I enjoyed the Crab Salad, the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets (bulgur salad, apples, creamed horseradish) were one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. This is one of the dishes that has gotten a tremendous amount of buzz, so I went in with fairly high expectations, only to have them blown to bits by the real McCoy. Now I should be up front and offer a disclaimer: because I’m an old lady at heart, I’m really into beets. Like eggplant level of love for them. So if you’re not a beet fan, you might not have the revelatory experience that I did, but I would be shocked if you still didn’t enjoy the crap out of this appetizer. As the name implies, this dish shows off the rotisserie oven that Narcissa is known for, with the beets roasted to a blackened crisp on the outside. From the photo you might think they’re crusted with something, but it’s actually just the charred exterior, creating a crunchy shell that holds a supple, deep violet beet flesh inside. Not surprisingly, the flesh is super-giving, your fork gliding through it. The bulger, apples and herbs add some bulk to the dish, all of which is served on a pool of creamed horseradish sauce. Once again, I found myself face-to-face with an ingredient I largely avoid. Horseradish means one thing to me — maror (bitter herbs) at Passover, where it’s sandwiched between two pieces of matzoh in an obligatory ritual I’d otherwise opt out of. But here the bite of the horseradish was softened by the cream, retaining enough power to counter the sweetness of the caramelized beets and raw apples chunks. Overall, it was a great showcase of the skill of the kitchen — taking something as mundane as beets and elevating it through basic techniques. This is actually a perfect example of what I love about the recent turn towards giving vegetables their due — maybe it’s because I’m becoming a lame-o adult who actually loves eating well-prepared veggies, but I think people in general would change their minds about brussels sprouts or beets if given the opportunity to have dishes like this one (or simply being exposed to better cooking options than just the pile of steamed vegetables sitting on your plate at Outback).
There was only a little bit of downtime before our entrees arrived. I had been tempted by both of my parents’ choices, since the dish I had eyed from all the reviews, the lamb loin, had not made it onto the summer menu. So once I had that out of the way, I zeroed-in on the Maine Scallops (asparagus, green garlic, potato puree, lobster butter), but that was my mother’s top pick, so I went with my other menu kryptonite, the duck breast. Her dish came with four sizable scallops, seared to an exquisite golden-brown on top, but still a pale off-white on the sides and interior. They were melt-in-your-mouth smooth, not really seasoned beyond basic salt and pepper. The lobster butter, which my mother had been especially excited about, seemed to be located in the sauce underneath, and had a surprisingly subtle flavor. I had expected it to be more like a bisque with a real lobster tang to it, but I can understand the restraint given the delicacy of scallops — you don’t want a taste as recognizable as lobster to overpower the main component of a dish. This entree seemed to be the most classically executed and plated dish, so the vegetables were straightforward but well-cooked, with shaved slivers of asparagus and a silky potato puree, and greens that the menu lists as green garlic, but I thought looked like fiddlehead ferns. Then again, what do I know, I’ve never actually tasted fiddleheads, so I couldn’t discern a difference based on flavor.
We also shared a side order of the Supergreen Spinach (potato chips). You can’t see it in this picture, but the dish totally lives up to its name — we’re talking Incredible Hulk bright green. The potato chip topping was a cute play on the common steakhouse sides, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I think it wasn’t particularly memorable outside of its gamma-irradiated hue. Just solid creamed spinach, and nowhere near as innovative a use of potato chips as the incorporation into the Cod Brandade at Picholine.
My father’s Steamed Black Bass (french curry broth, eggplant, toasted almonds) also looked great to me because of the accompanying items (as I believe Julie Andrews sang, curry, eggplant and almonds are a few of my favorite things). I thought the plating of the dish was just gorgeous, with the fillets sitting firmly atop the little hill of vegetables, just slightly bowing to show how soft the flesh was. You don’t think of steaming as a particularly exciting cooking method, but here it prevented the skin from becoming too soggy while the fish meat was easy to flake away with your fork. Unlike the scallops, I thought the sauce defined the taste of the dish. The curry had a strong flavor without real heat to it, and the fish and eggplant pieces soaked it up easily. The toasted almonds mirrored the nuttiness of the curry, and gave a nice crunch to an otherwise pretty soft dish. I think I would have been plenty satisfied if I had ordered this dish, but having now tasted the duck, I’m going to struggle to try other entrees if I return to Narcissa.
The Lacquered Duck Breast (parsley root, melted leeks, rhubarb) was hands-down my favorite dish of the night, and no joke, I’ve been actually thought about this dish several times in the weeks since my birthday dinner. I adore duck, and this might truly be the best duck I’ve ever eaten. First things first, it was a massive duck breast — this duck had Double D’s, and was clearly very well fed. The “lacquered” crust (which Google tells me just means a sweet glaze that lends itself to caramelization and the appearance of a lacquer-like sheen) was shiny and gave the skin a crunchy, crackly texture, and its sweetness enhanced the gamey flavor of the duck meat underneath. There was a much appreciated hint of tartness from the rhurbarb, which was echoed by the acidity of the melted leeks, which were almost like a puree in texture. I’m not sure how great my breath smelled after finishing the leeks, but I thought they served a similar purpose to the horseradish sauce in our beet appetizer — the bite of the ingredient softened by its preparation. Cutting into the breast revealed a cross section of medium rare and bloody meat topped by a full layer of fat sitting just below the crust. I felt like I do when there’s a bit of fat on steak, and I tell myself I should just cut it off and avoid it. But what can you do when it’s an integral part of the duck breast makeup? So I demolished it. The dish also came with what I thought were parsnips, but now realize was actually parsley root, which looks similar but is less sweet, again a very interesting and intelligent strategy when paired with the delicious but sugary glaze on the breast. This dish was relatively simple in its components, but really unlike any preparation of duck I’ve had before, and I can’t get over how addictive the combination of the duck meat and that glaze was. I would seriously go back to Narcissa for the beets and the duck alone.
The desserts certainly didn’t lower the overall level of the meal, but they were just more pedestrian compared to the earlier standout dishes. I think my dad was a big fan of the Apricot Tart Tatin (goat milk ice cream, pepper caramel), but I ultimately found the dessert cloyingly sweet. I enjoy the traditional apple tart tatin, and I do like apricot and apricot-flavored things generally, but here the apricots were almost like ovals of marmalade in their consistency, completely cooked down and syrupy. The best part of the dish was the pepper caramel, which I’d vouch is superior to salted caramel. Rather than enhancing the sweetness through salt, I think the pepper provides an interesting contrast that confused my tongue a bit. Not to harp on one point, but it was the same deal as the horseradish sauce and the melted leeks, where a bit of savory flavor made me stop and think for a second about what I was eating, how all the components came together.
No surprise that the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart (curry-roasted bananas, espresso ice cream) was a little more up my alley. The outer shell was crisp, looking almost bruleed on top, and inside was a dark chocolate mixture somewhere between a molten lava cake and mousse. The sweetness was tempered in every element of this dessert, from the selection of a darker chocolate base for the tart, to using the bitterness of the espresso to tamp down the gelato’s sugar, to adding curry as a savory element to counter the caramelized bananas. Despite my prior misgivings over espresso gelato at Osteria Morini, I really liked Narcissa’s version, which I felt has less of a burnt tone to it. Add in the Oreo-like cookie crumbles strewn throughout the dish, and I was more than happy to blow out the candle and let this dessert cap off a remarkable birthday dinner.
What impressed me most about Narcissa was the deft handling of a variety of preparations, from the more classical techniques and flavor profiles of European cuisines to more unusual takes on American dishes. My parents and I had three radically different entrees and all of them were stunning in their own regard. They really ran the gamut, from the playful and elegant plating, to the provocative pairings of savory and sweet — themes that were echoed in every course of our meal. With a lovely atmosphere, attentive service, interesting cocktails, and a progressive menu of fresh, seasonal farm-to-table food, I would strongly recommend Narcissa to anyone looking for an American restaurant with a global eye. Perhaps that’s even one definition of Californian cuisine?
Speaking of, I owe my brother an apology — on Narcissa’s own website, they claim to “marr[y] the clean flavors and impeccably-sourced ingredients of California cuisine with new techniques of roasting, rotisserie and slow-cooking.” So count that as yet another reason to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. Or rather, to stop talking and start eating.
21 Cooper Square (between 5th St. and Bowery)