Prune has been on my go-to list for a long while, but I was finally prompted to go when I saw Chef Gabrielle Hamilton defeat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. The fact she was on the show at all was a tribute to what she had achieved in her hole-in-the-wall East Village restaurant, making a destination out of what looks like a casual neighborhood place.
Eric Asimov gave it a rave in $25 & Under (back when that column reviewed real restaurants). Three years ago, Frank Bruni updated that assessment, awarding one star. I often don’t agree with Bruni’s one-star reviews — too often, he uses it as an insult. But with Prune he got it right. One star is supposed to mean “good,” and that’s what Prune is.
Prune is in a tiny slip of a space in the East Village. Into it, Hamilton squeezes more seats than you’ll find in restaurant’s twice the size. Reaching your table may require the agility of an Olympic gymnast. At one table, diners had to climb through the French doors to reach their seats.
The drawbacks, such as they are, aren’t much of a deterrent. Throughout August, we’ve found many popular restaurants with tables to spare. Not at Prune. Every table was taken, and there were always at least a few folks waiting outside. Walk-ins were turned away.
The décor is shabby-chic, with butcher paper standing in for tablecloths. In lieu of bread, you get a small bowl of surprisingly addictive dried chickpeas. With appetizers $8–14, entrées $18–26 and side dishes $7–9, one might expect a bit more comfort. A party entered dressed in dresses and suits, obviously expecting a different type of restaurant. They were visibly distressed to find such a bare-bones place. But most of the clientele were dressed casually, as you’d expect at any of the raft of East Village destinations that have sprouted in the last decade.
There is a separate bar menu with “snacks” ($5–8) that can also be ordered appetizers. I ordered the Lamb Sausages ($8; above left). They tasted great, but would more accurately be called meatballs. Michelle had the fried squash blossoms, an off-menu special ($9; above right), which we were surprised to find still in season. I never really paid much attention to squash blossoms until this year, when they seem to appear everywhere—and Prune’s preparation was as compelling as any.
Suckling pig ($24) was another off-menu special. There was apparently a spice rub, giving the braised pig a fiery kick. There’s not a lot of complexity here, but the dish delivered as comfort food usually does.
Prune is fun. You’ll eat well here without breaking the bank, but I didn’t find the kind of innovative cuisine that Gabrielle Hamilton used to defeat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. If I lived or worked nearby, I’d be an enthusiastic regular—if I could get in.
Prune (54 E. 1st Street between First & Second Avenues, East Village)