Thursday, September 22, 2005

Emily and Gabrielle - New York City Entry #10

Strolling down Houston Street, heading for Prune, I happened upon a woman standing by a portable heater along the avenue - the good sweet aroma of southern cooking could not be resisted. This chef introduced herself as Emily and introduced me to her mother sitting nearby. Emily has lived in New York for some forty years, part of the great Southern migration, a native of upcountry South Carolina (near Anderson), not far from where I spend my summers. Tonight she was serving fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collards, and upside-down pineapple cake.

I have always felt great sympathy for Calvin Trillin's young daughter, who, as he described the matter in his "Tummy Trilogy," always carried a bagel on family outings to Chinese restaurants "just in case." I feel the same about greens; you never know when pot likker might save an evening.

Prune thinks of itself as a neighborhood restaurant, but what could be more neighborly than a $10 plate of fried chicken, eaten on an East Village stoop. And Emily has not forgotten her roots with collards as sweet as tea, a peppery chicken, macaroni whose cheese is not quattro formaggio, and a dessert made for porch eating. Emily informs me that she cakes - vanilla, chocolate, red velvet, and, of course, upside-down pineapple. Her cakes, not uptown but upcountry, are worth a call.

With my part-eaten dinner in hand, I arrived at Prune. As many have noted, Prune's ambiance melds cramped and loud, but the tables - almost like a long communal table at Boston's Durgin Park - do make for acquaintance. May the couple to our right have a blissful life together. But when you choose you seats, ask your partner who is in greater need of the facilities, otherwise you may be plum out of luck. The restaurant seats thirty in a space that under less convivial conditions might fit twelve.

The starter - not quite an amuse bouche - was a mean trick. Gabrielle Hamilton, the highly regarded chef at Prune, served boiled peanuts cooked al dente, seasoned with cayenne. I was not amused. Boiled peanuts are a comfort food, designed to be served at the point that the nut is soft throughout, where the sweetness of the meat merges with the saltiness of the boil. I admit that a chef has the power the right to taunt our expectations, but to what end? The poor nut could not stand up to the kitchen's rough play. And my thoughts drifted to the perfection that Miz Emily would have brought to my bouche.

Prune is rightly known for its Monkfish Liver on Warm Buttered Toast, and, excepting lobster innards, I have never eaten a more dazzling seafood organ meat. (With Beef Marrow off the menu until winter, this is the closest we come to Fergus Henderson's offal cuisine). The liver was so mild and tender that it might have been the finest foie gras. Napped with a soy based sauce, one could eat it pungent or pure. The happily buttered toast added a richness that complimented the essence of liver. With the monkfish, we saved the best for first.

Along with monkfish liver, we ordered Prune's signature barfood, Sardines with Triscuits and Mustard. I have always fantasized that some day I would learn to cook corn flakes, and I assumed that Chef Hamilton would have taken on Nabisco. No such luck. I'm not convinced that any of the trio of ingredients deserve top billing. This is home cooking for those without a stove.

We had been deciding between the two sardine dishes, and kitchen kindly sent us the second a sardine and avocado sandwich. I wouldn't place this dish in a Hall of Fame, but it was a more successful presentation that its sibling. The sardine was more substantial, and seemed to have been cut rather than scooped from a can. This appetizer belonged in a restaurant, not a tavern.

I choose to order two starters rather than a main course (I was less than stunned by the choices of roast chicken, lamb chops, ribeye steak. Only the whole grilled bronzino tempted.) As is often noted in accounts of Prune, the "Fried Sweetbreads with Bacon and Capers" is a substantial opener: four sweetbreads supporting a long strip of bacon in a pool of caper sauce. Like the liver, sweetbreads are organ meats, but here the preparation detracts from the dish. While the sweetbreads were clean and fresh, their flavor was overpowered by a fried coating. Had the chef modestly sauteed them with a bit of flour or left them naked, the dish would been superior. The bacon and capers provided all the pungency needed.

The Pasta Kerchief (with poached egg, French ham, and brown butter) was too great a conceit. My preference would have been as a simpler take on pasta carbonara - horizontal, not sculptural. At the bottom of the plate, the pasta had become rather soggy as the sauce cascaded down. A sauced dish that is served vertically inevitably has a different textural profile in the basement than on the leaky roof. As with the sweetbreads, this is a dish that could be fine with some thoughtful tweaking.

My dining partner ordered the Roasted Suckling Pig (with pickled tomatoes, blackeyed pea salad, and aioli). In an eloquent memoir in Food & Wine, Gabrielle Hamilton reveals that she is a Pennsylvania girl whose her mentor, Misty Callies, inspired her in Ann Arbor. Nobody had to tell me that his girl isn't from Dixie. Maybe suckling pig doesn't require wood smoke, but it wouldn't hurt. This was B-bbq. The clanging tastes of this dish were louder than the background noise. Suckling pig can have a purity when cooked precisely. Pulled pork does not deserve tomato-jalapeno salad. The blackeyed pea salad did provided a welcome and witty commentary on bbq's standard cole slaw. Although I should have been focusing on Chez Prune, I mused about the contrast on Houston Street. Iron Chef Carolina.

Side dishes were thick Jersey tomatoes as bright as a Southern cardinal and as sweet as a honeysuckle night. The bitter greens salad contained fresh lettuces, but was rather cautious in its willingness to tempt us with bitter leaves. Chef Hamilton is more than willing to indulge in salty play, but bitter tastes are rare.

Dessert was an Upside-down Nectarine Cake (counterpoint to Upside-down Pineapple Cake). The cake itself was moist, sweet, and perfect. Thus, it was a surprise that the nectarines turned up missing. To combine this cake with pineapple rings with a maraschino nipple would have been divine.

The wine list, although not large, is well chosen. We selected a modestly ($24) priced Provencal rosé (Routas Rouviere Rosé. It was a perfect summer wine. Bravo.

I enjoyed my meal at Prune. Many dishes could have used tweaking, but at $72 (before tip), Gabrielle Hamilton provide creativity. If her inspiration is not always mine, it is inspiration. And yet there are those from whom she could still learn, not only Fergus Henderson of St. John's, but Emily too, dishing out heavenly cakes and blessed greens down the block.

Emily's Heavenly Cakes and Deli

54 East First Street
Manhattan (East Village)

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