Reality-Based Gastronomic Opinions
Saxon + Parole
316 Bowery Street (@ Bleeker)
New York, NY 10012
Dine date: September 26, 2011
What do NYC new-school iconic dining rooms Public, Stanton Social, Beauty & Essex, Park Avenue [Season], Sapa, Quality Meats, Hurricane Club, Lavo, and Bourbon Steak have in common? They are all the product of cutting-edge downtown design firm AvroKO, a team that has developed a highly recognizable aesthetic - actually more of a visual narrative – within the restaurants and other spaces they have designed. But to simply call AvroKO a design firm isn’t fair – they are also a full-service architecture firm (with a highly anticipated W Hotel Bangkok in the works) as well as being proficient and respected haute restaurateurs.
Wait a sec – interior designers and architects that run restaurants? Yep. They’re their own client. It’s like Firestone buying rubber plantations, or Starbucks buying up coffee fields. Okay, maybe not exactly. But it’s vertical integration in an industry that has seldom seen it done successfully - a concept that AvroKO calls “self propelled” restaurants. They even produce Parole Whiskey, their own locally distilled brand of rye. Top that, Starbucks.
It doesn’t hurt that one of the group’s four principals – who all met when they were eighteen years old – has a brother who is a kickass chef. This creative cross-genre collabo spawned the opening of NoLiTa staple Public, the group’s first restaurant, in 2003. After its tremendous success, AvroKO continued its almost experimental foray into the restaurant world with Double Crown in 2008, which after a lackluster performance, rebooted on September 19th 2011 as equestrian/Americana-themed Saxon + Parole. Named after two famous racehorses of yesteryear, Chef Brad Farmerie describes the eatery as a “celebration of the grill”.
The primetime location on the southwest corner of Bowery and Bleeker makes for a central and convenient downtown meet up for you and your fabulous peeps. The chic awning provides cover for fair-weather seating at nine deuces, surrounded by greenery to sequester the space a bit from the bustling Bowery sidewalk. The entrance corridor leads you past the maître d’ desk and into the warm and inviting bar area. The look is unmistakably AvroKO, with lots of exposed brick, warm Edison-style lighting, brushed metal fixtures, and light wood paneling everywhere. It’s industrial design with organic hipster styling, and a dash of gentrified country. Trendy tipplers are sipping signature cocktails at the bar and ordering oysters, charcuterie and the like. The first of three dining rooms is off to your right, and its centerpiece is a flower-adorned marble fireplace sitting beneath two huge portraits of the namesake racehorses. The second dining room is a gorgeously paneled room in the back, flanked along one wall by a long leather banquette, and crowned by the best table in the house: a two-top in front of a mirrored marble fireplace.
Insider tip: the west wall of this dining room contains a hidden door that leads to AvroKO’s adjacent speakeasy, Madame Geneva - an in-the-know booze destination in and of itself.
A walk down a flight of steps reveals a candle-lit corridor lined with five sumptuous private bathroom boudoirs, as well as the restaurant’s third dining room - a cozy, windowless, wood and leather-bound space encircled by hundreds of wine bottles. This will definitely be a killer spot to tuck into during the winter, or for private parties year round.
The front-of-house welcome is gracious and inviting. The well-dressed and good-looking staff is professional and efficient, but friendly and accommodating. Expect to be seated quickly and be well attended to throughout the course of your meal. The knowledgeable servers are quick to point out the bestsellers and to ask about food allergies. They elaborate on what’s being tested in the kitchen (the pork chops) and how the house-made tonic is an excellent cocktail mixer (order one, very unique). Courses are paced correctly and the somm is on point and legit. The spacing in the dining rooms is fairly tight but adequate by New York standards, with about eighteen inches to the next top.
The appetizer section is as eclectic as a Hoarders episode, ranging from roasted piquillo peppers to toasted chili marshmallows. The two-tiered seafood tower (medium size; $67) is well stocked but will disappear quickly if served for more than 4 people. Everything is exceptionally fresh. The mussels are not too salty/briny or crunchy, and are smooth on the palette - especially with the tasty accompanying sauces. The clams lack fishiness and are very smooth in consistency, and slip right down the throat [insert joke here].
Featured on the menu are seasonal house made pots that are “best shared by the table”, although the portion is about right for one person as an appetizer. The chicken liver mousse pot with port and pepper jelly ($9) starts with a layer of geleé, followed by the chicken liver mousse, which is served cold. It’s a bit hard to get through with a fork but is exquisite and really features the port and peppery flavors it advertises – not too spicy on the tongue, but actually somewhat sweet and quite refined. The three segments of perfectly toasted bread are not sufficient to get through the pot, so order extra right off the bat. The portobello mousse pot ($8) is also splendid - it’s laced with a small quantity of proprietary whiskey, and the layered truffle jelly bursts onto the palate with complete control and presence without overwhelming the mushroom spread nor the bread.
The razor clam and egg salad ($10) come served in two razor clam shells set upon iceberg leaves. The flavors say ocean side summer picnic - citrusy if not with a touch too much mayonnaise. The triangle toasts make a nice vehicle.
The foie gras and five spice terrine with grilled peach and onion relish ($17) is pure finesse. The six-bite portion is just right for a normal human. The grilled peaches are sweet, fruity and aromatic. They are lightly dusted with five spice, a blend that is popular in Asia and consists of cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices. Foie gras meets Santa Claus.
The steamed asparagus with poached egg ($13) comes with a sprightly and savory pancetta and truffle-yuzu hollandaise. The dish is plated hot and the egg is just runny enough to coat the vegetables perfectly. The six pieces of asparagus are incredibly fresh and crunchy.
The beet salad ($10) is underwhelming. Despite its freshness, its simplicity is out of place with the relative originality of its peer dishes. Zipping it up with an interesting dressing, say a poppy seed sauce or a yogurt-based dressing, would take things up a notch from the plain vinaigrette.
The sautéed edamame side dish ($6) overcomes its innate blandness with a healthy mix-in of sundried tomatoes and feta.
As another notable side, the cauliflower and gruyere gratin ($7) is salty, crispy, and filling without being too overbearing.
Moving into entrees, the whole roasted branzino ($28) comes stuffed with salty parmesan. The nine-inch fish has a crispy blackened skin that is a bit too salty on the palette – especially with the parmesan - but is somewhat tempered by toasted panko and smoked paprika. The house made tartar is unremarkable. The fish itself is hearty and not overly oily for a branzino, but was served with a few too many bones remaining, a fact that in all fairness was prefaced by the server.
The Guinness and five spice glazed short rib (for two; $44) is of Flintstoneian proportions. The meat is unquestionably of a very high grade and prepared masterfully, but is lacking in sauce and flavor. It feels high-end, yet winds up naked and vapid - kind of like Kourtney Kardashian. The accompanying baked parsnips introduce a new and unexpected taste element, but quickly reveal themselves to be overly dry and limp – kind of like Anthony Weiner.
Insider tip: the A Tribute To Grace 2008 grenache ($90) somehow manages to pair quite well with both the branzino and the short rib, forcefully bridging the gap between hot meat and a fishy dish – kind of like Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Your sweet tooth won’t mind winding things down on the chocolate soufflé with whiskey ice cream ($9). It’s rich, moist, and downright soft on the inside – kind of like… enough already. The flavor is intense and consistent throughout, but the whiskey ice cream steals the show. Excellent flavor reprisal against the dense dark chocolate shout-outs from the cake.
Overall, the experience is solid from beginning to end. You feel right at home – especially if your home is designed by AvroKO and in the Berkshires (dick). The staff is executing well despite only being at it for a week, as is the kitchen. The menu fails in certain areas but the letdowns aren’t monumental. It rocks in others, but also not monumentally. This doesn’t mean you are in for a mediocre experience, quite on the contrary - it just means that the experience will not fluctuate drastically throughout its course, but will remain on a generally high trajectory. Groundbreaking gastronomy is not what’s happening here, but it’s a very good meal in a very cool space, and conceptually very intriguing. Worth looking into for friends or a group, rather than a romantic interlude.
BREAK IT DOWN…
Good delivery overall; a couple of easy fixes could bring this up to a solid ‘4’ rating.
Orderly, casual yet respectful, knowledgeable and non-judgmental.
AvroKO designed it. Done.
Generally fair pricing for what you get. Exceptions are $44 for the short rib is excessive, as is $90 for a wine that retails at $49.
Accommodation On Walk-In
We pretended we didn’t have a reservation. They were cool about it.
Bathroom: Sanctuary Or Minefield?
Zen spa. Five bathrooms that are each their own little 10’x10’ room; in basement away from the bustle of the dining rooms.
Ability To Have Sex In The Bathroom
See above; doesn’t get much better than this. There is even a little chair in each boudoir. Nobody would ever notice.
Seat Height Equilibrium
Tables have uniform seats, but the banquettes are a bit mushy and will put you about 2” below your table mate.
Affect Of Staff
They are cool and they know it. Not overly pretentious though.
Humor Of Staff
Responded well to jokey banter.
Wine Recommendation Honesty
Spot-on calls by a solid somm.
Quality Of Music
Weird choice of blues and other random stuff; wasn’t even playing at all for the first hour.
Reasonable enough, but the rear dining room is pretty reflective and had some din going on.
Laaaadies! Purse Hanging Options At The Table
Bar has hooks, and table chairs have square backs.
Republished with permission from Citizen New York Magazine.