You have to admire the effort behind Narcissa, chef John Fraser’s new restaurant in The Standard East Village hotel. The space is lovely, and well put-together. But we’ve been down this road before, and it usually doesn’t end well.
In 2011, André Balzacs acquired the building (formerly the Cooper Square Hotel) and incorporated it into his chain of boutique hotels. His other New York property (straddling the High Line) has been a hit—it’s not my taste, but I respect it—and no doubt he thought that he could spread his pixie dust on the other side of town.
For the main restaurant (there is also a casual café), Balzacs followed a formula that has already bombed here twice, bringing in a respected chef who could fill seats on name recognition alone. First it was Govind Armstrong at Table 8, then Scott Conant at Faustina. Now it’s John Fraser, whose quiet Upper West Side restaurant Dovetail has a Michelin star. Let’s hope they have better luck this time.
According to the website, Fraser is serving “California cuisine with new techniques of roasting, rotisserie and slow-cooking.” Does that set your pulse racing? Nah, me neither. I didn’t notice any “new techniques,” but Fraser has mastered the old ones. The restaurant is named for a cow on Balzacs’ upstate farm, which supplies much of the produce.
The menu is shockingly retro, divided into appetizers ($12–16), mains ($20–34; ribeye steak $48) and sides ($7). Imagine that: a chef who is not afraid of the word “appetizer,” so long out of use that I had almost forgotten it existed.
It’s refreshing to see a new restaurant with a fully-formed wine list. It’s not available online, but I recall a handsome leatherette volume of many pages and a wide price range. Our party of four enjoyed the 2011 Domaine de Montrieux ($50), after bright spring cocktails that seemed fairly priced for this sort of place, at $14 each.
The bread service (below left) is a large, dome-shaped roll, served warm and promptly replenished if you want more.
Two of our party ordered the Raw Tuna ($16; above right), served with cucumber-basil water, salsify, and jalapeño relish. Despite such promising ingredients, the table pronounced it bland, a sorry verdict for anything containing jalapeño.
We were more pleased with a Dungeness Crab Salad ($16; above left) with blood orange, hearts of palm, and hazelnuts. There was a spicy kick in Rotisserie Crisped Beets ($14; above right) with bulgur salad, apples, and creamed horseradish, proving that not all beet salads have to be boring.
The menu’s cleverest dish is the Carrots Wellington ($20; above left); yes, it’s carrots taking the place of steak in Beef Wellington. Scallops ($28; above right) had an appealing char, but the accompaniments (green garlic, fiddlehead ferns, golden beets) were unexciting.
Poussin ($28; above left) received nods of approval, but as served inside of a tall ceramic pot, it was difficult to eat. Lacquered Duck ($28; above right) was bright pink, with a thick layer of unctuous fat.
We concluded with an appealing Chocolate Tart ($9; above left), and the kitchen sent out a plate of candies to conlude the meal.
There are two brightly-lit, auburn-hued dining rooms, one (where we sat) with an open kitchen and another facing a private garden that will be open for al fresco seating in good weather. Each room has its own bar, the former described on the website as a “chef’s counter”. Prime-time reservations have been scarce, but we had no trouble getting in for an early seating on a Sunday evening.
As of today, with Fraser working the pass, Narcissa is a pretty good restaurant, but like its predecessors at this address, it has a lot of seats to fill. The concept is crowd-pleasing but not really distinctive. Will they be able to keep it going after Fraser returns to home base and the hip crowd moves onto the Next Big Thing?
Narcissa (21 Cooper Square in the Standard Hotel, East Village)
Food: California cuisine, capably prepared but unadventurous
Service: Attentive but a bit chatty
Ambiance: Two brightly-lit, auburn-hued, upscale countrified dining rooms