Where To Bite – Narcissa [East Village, NY]
I first encountered Narcissa while attending an unlikely concert in the invite-only, basement club Chez Andre at The Standard East Village. It was a twangy, country performance of Mississippi River byways and backwater blues. I’d had a drink with a friend beforehand at Cafe Standard, beneath a canopy of hanging plants on the bar’s glass, and only then noticed Narcissa, tucked behind a patio for al fresco dining.
No more than a week later, I read New York Magazine’s glowing compliments for Chef John Fraser’s carrot “fries” (thumbelina carrots deeply crisped and served with a jalapeño-tofu dip, dubbed the best vegetable side dish in the city in 2014) while my neighboring coworker gave a rhapsodic account of the potato gnocchi that very same day.
Meanwhile, my parents were planning a visit to the city, and the contemporary, California-style cuisine was clearly the perfect fit for my Los Angeles bred father and my mother, who rarely passes on the opportunity to order vegetable fries.
Recommended Dishes: There was no dish I wouldn’t eat again, and there were half a dozen or more on the menu I’d still like to try. I must, however, argue with the professionals. The potato gnocchi was, as my editor promised, potato-pudding soft and supremely satisfying. And, as NY Mag insisted, the carrot fries were addictive and fun. At the LWB table, it was the Brussels Sprouts Leaves appetizer and Kohlrabi side that really stole the show. Healthier than both the gnocchi and the carrot fries, these dishes were fought over fork (and finger!).
The Brussels Sprouts Leaves, sans ham, is best described as a salad – made texturally dynamic with crisp apples, creamy manchego, roasted roots and thin shaved vegetables. The satisfying crunch of sunflower kernels was a smart finishing touch on this colorful, flavorful salad.
The Kohlrabi side dish, on the other hand, was almost indulgent. Patiently roasted until the turnip-like vegetable had the consistency of a twice-baked fingerling potato, and perfectly complimented by ribbons of its red cabbage cousin, we all found the side dish to be a well-matched side for a various entrees.
The Not-So-Good Bite: Often, expectations are the downfall of even the best dish. I had such astronomically high hopes for the carrot fries that I could only have been pleased by something that came gold gilded, calorie free, and bottomless.
While the carrot fries were certainly tasty (sweet and salty, crispy and melt-in-your mouth, and perfectly zesty with the innovative condiment) they were ultimately deep-fried carrots. In my opinion, a light, crunchy tempura would have been a superior fry-method to the thick batter that broke off from the thin, spindly carrots. And, of course, as an advocate for all things delicious without the assistance of extra oil and fat, I can hardly stand behind the deep-fried vegetables as a recommended choice. Of course, you’ll still have to try them for yourself – and you will still enjoy them – only you may want to consider shifting your expectations to a less-hyped dish.
The Good Bite: My editor wasn’t exaggerating about the gnocchi. While not the healthiest option (trying instead the poached farm egg on quinoa with forest mushrooms and chayote, or the rotisserie-crisped beets with bulgur, horseradish, and apples) it could even serve as a substantial side for the table. The pillowy dumplings were moist and richly flavored with butter and parmesan – and served with whole favas and ramps. It’s a salty dish – but intentionally so – and the soft, doughy ingredients are perfect for assuaging that inherent salinity.
The Best Bite: With a menu inspired daily by the produce from Andre Balazs’ Hudson Valley Farm, The Farm at Locusts, there is a diverse and extensive number of vegetarian dishes. From the first dining room, (noted for the open-kitchen) you can watch Fraser’s two rotisseries slow-roast beets for up to four hours, or see jerk-spiced sweet potatoes make slow, precise revolutions. When we dined there in April, the menu’s staple Maine Scallop entree was served with those same, crispy beets, ribbons of chard – or spinach – minced green garlic and, my absolute favorite: spaghetti squash.
While I could have easily ordered a variety of vegetarian appetizers and sides (Supergreen Spinach, Farm Greens with Burdock, or even gone for the highly-revered Carrots Wellington with sunchokes and bluefoot mushrooms) I asked instead for the dreaded substation.
Could I please, if it isn’t too much trouble, get the Maine Scallops without the scallops?
Chef Fraser could not possibly have pleased me more with his willingness to exchange the seafood for another vegetable. Chef’s choice? Beautiful florets of cauliflower, arranged just as if they were the intended scallops (my mother, who ordered the Maine Scallops – with scallops – received a nearly identical dish).
With nearly all of my favorite vegetables piled together on a bed of buttery spaghetti squash, how could I not find this dish to be the highlight of the evening? As far as a vegan, gluten-free, grain-free entree goes, this particular iteration shows that some of the best dishes are the ones that let the ingredients truly stand for themselves.
Believe it or not, even the desserts are vegetable driven. Find parsnip carrot cake and fennel cheesecake on the menu as inventive alternatives to classic American favorites.
Narcissa is one of my favorite new restaurants to hit the city. The convenient Astor Place location, the friendly and professional service, and the upside down chairs decorating the second dining room make this the perfect spot for a nice evening out or dinner before an eclectic show at Chez Andre.
Until next time,