Time was, the cuisine of the British Isles didn’t travel well. No one went to England for the food, and no one opened serious English restaurants anywhere else.
April Bloomfield may be the chef who, more than any other, has proven that the food of her native country can be exported. It began at the Spotted Pig, a West Village hit six years ago that remains impossibly busy at practically all times (and does not take reservations).
Bloomfield and her business partner, Ken Friedman, stumbled at the John Dory, a seafood restaurant in Far West Chelsea that won good reviews, but couldn’t stay in business. Friedman attributed the failure to the lack of lunch traffic in that neighborhood, and inefficient use of the space due to the decision to accept reservations, which he says he regrets.
The Breslin, a gastropub like the Pig, opened last fall. The neighborhood presented a bit of a risk, as West 29th Street is neither a nightlife hotspot nor a residential district. It’s in the unnamed gray space on the Manhattan map, north of Chelsea but south of Midtown. Restaurants too numerous to name have failed here. Nevertheless, they vowed not to take reservations.
By opening in the boutique Ace Hotel, Bloomfield and Friedman at least hedged their bets. Hotel restaurants are usually subsidized, since most establishments feel they must offer their guests a place to eat. A failure would mean leaving the space vacant for a prolonged period, which an upscale hotel would likely consider intolerable. The built-in captive audience gives the restaurant a cushion to rest on.
Not that the Breslin shows any sign of failing: it was arguably the hottest of the fall openings. It was less than half full on a recent Saturday evening, but I hesitate to draw conclusions during a summer weekend. But if this persists I suspect the no-reservation policy will get a second look.
Whether you like the Breslin or not, you have to take off your hat to Ms. Bloomfield, to this extent: She isn’t serving a Scotch Egg or a Beef & Stilton Pie because the market demanded them. No menu consultant gave her the list of obligatory standards that every place in town is serving. When you dine at Bloomfield’s restaurants, you’re getting her cuisine, and nobody else’s.
In a somewhat unflattering one-star review, Sam Sifton complained that too much of the menu sings in the same key: it’s heavy on salt and fat, and as he indelicately put it, tough on the digestive tract. It’s somewhat unfair to penalize the restaurant because he needed to fart, but it is a heavy menu. There is no denying that.
The menu is divided into snacks ($4–8), appetizers ($12–18), entrées ($17–32), and sides ($7–8). Terrine boards are $25 or $42, and you cannot order their contents individually. Even crazier is a ribeye for two at $139; no steak for one person is offered.
I visited the Breslin alone, and tried too little of the menu to form a definite impression. Boiled Peanuts Fried in Pork Fat ($6; above left) is a crazy dish that no one else serves. Whether due to boiling or saturation in fat, the shells are edible, and just as good as the nuts inside.
The Lamb Burger with Feta ($17; above right) is rich and flavorful, but I like the Spotted Pig’s beef burger with roquefort even better. It comes with addictive chips that, in keeping with the theme, are thrice fried.
The service is top-notch, at least by pub standards, as I have found at every one of Ken Friedman’s places. For a former record industry honcho, he seems to understand how to recruit and train a staff. They all dress casually, and indeed, you might have trouble telling them apart from the customers.
Friedman has done his usual bang-up job on the décor, assuming you don’t mind a Disneyfied version of what a real English pub looks like. The space is quite a bit more comfortable than the Spotted Pig, with the advantage of being built from scratch, and not having to fit into a landmarked neighborhood.
The Breslin is, alas, too far out of my way to be on the regular rotation. But there is much more of the menu that I am eager to try, if only to find out if the rest of the food tastes as good as it reads.
The Breslin (16 W. 29th Street between Broadway & Fifth Avenue, West Midtown)