Note: Francis Derby left King after just three months on the job, after a clash with the owners about the scope and ambition of the cuisine. As of March 2012, a sous-chef had replaced him. The restaurant closed in June.
Francis Derby’s name comes up a lot in NYC culinary circles. In the last eleven years, the chef has worked at Atlas, WD~50, Gilt, Tailor, Solex, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and Shorty’s.32. I am not sure if that’s a complete list.
None of those were his own place. He has that now at King, which opened last month a converted railroad apartment on a quiet Soho street corner. Let’s hope this gig lasts longer than the others did. King is a restaurant I want to root for.
While I wouldn’t call King elegant, it has many of the amenities lacking in about 95 percent of new restaurants these days: tablecloths, a comfortable bar, reservations accepted, coats checked, a civilized dining room. It’s a superb, quiet date spot. I liked the décor, but to some diners it may seem old-fashioned. Some of it, I think, came from rummage sales, although Ken Friedman built a whole empire that way.
I’m realist enough to know that King is swimming against the tide. There’s a reason not many people are opening that kind of restaurant today. They have trouble finding enough guests like me, who value what King is trying to do.
There are some early fumbles (about a month in), as they try to figure out what works. A tripe gratin or tripe stroganoff, mentioned with derision in some of the early reviews, is no longer on the menu. Likewise a Pigs Head Tortellini and a Salt Crust Chicken for two. As the more intriguing dishes disappear, we’re left with a menu that on its face won’t wow anyone. Once the food arrives, you’ll find that the chef’s technique is top-notch, but first they have to get you in the door.
It is only January, but it’s not too soon to credit King with the dumbest restaurant gimmick of the year:
Push the ‘champagne button’ at your seat, and a server appears with flutes, an ice bucket, and a 375ml bottle of Vueve Clicquot.
There’s nothing at the table to indicate what the button does: we assumed it was just a light switch, until we noticed that every table had one, and then I remembered the stories I’d read. Without an explanation, no one will know what the buttons do. And if they have to explain it, perhaps the old-fashioned way is better: let servers look after their tables. Some problems just don’t need a technology solution.
In the one case I’m aware of where someone actually pushed the button (a Mouthfuls review), they waited 20 minutes, and all that happened was a waiter came over and asked if the party needed anything. But perhaps that’s better than the alternative, an expensive bottle of bubbly that the table probably didn’t want anyway.
Chef Derby has some pretty impressive restaurants on his C.V., but he is certainly not trying to out-do his mentors. He serves a straightforrward seasonal American menu, with no entrée above $29. But I really liked everything I tried over the course of two visits, especially at this price point.
A Chicken & Rabbit Pâté ($14; above left) was excellent. This could go on the menu at Bar Boulud (the city’s best charcuterie place) tomorrow. It seems every new restaurant this year has multiple poached egg dishes. King has a terrific one: Smoked Octopus ($16; above right) with frisée and radish.
Bouchot Mussels ($18; above left) steamed in beer were just fine. Pork Belly ($26; above right) is sometimes too cloying to be an entrée, but it worked here because the skin was nicely crisped, giving it the needed textural contrast.
On my second visit, I tried the Sweetbreads ($16; above left) in an appealing celery root and green olive dip and a great Brussels Sprouts and Lamb Bacon side dish ($8; above right). The plate of pastries at the end (below left) is a nice touch.
The wine list is fairly minimal—around a dozen bottles. I can’t complain about a 2004 Saint-Émilion for $58 (above right), but there aren’t a lot of choices like that. King needs more, and better glassware to serve it in.
There are some pretty good house cocktails, like the His Majesty (Ransom Gin, Purity Vodka, Lillet Blanc, Orange Bitters) or the Rejouissance (Prosecco, St. Germain, Lemon-infused Vodka, Bittered Sugar). Service behind the bar is better and more polished than at the tables, where servers, though friendly and well-meaning, still seem to be feeling their way.
The dining room was not very busy on either of my visits, but both were on weeknights and relatively early. A server said that the weekend business has been brisk. To succeed, King needs to thread a needle. It wasn’t built on a big budget, it’s not expensive, and the cuisine won’t make headlines. It needs to attract people like me, who enjoy such places and wish there were more of them.
King (5 King Street at Sixth Avenue, Soho)