January 28, 2008
At one point or another, every lawyer dreams of ditching the big firm life, hanging up a shingle and trying to make it on their own. (Not me, but hey, I had other ideas.) That’s probably what Adam Cohn, an attorney here in the city, was planning. And on 5th Street, that’s just what he’s done. Only this shingle, a 2x4 white-washed rectangle swaying in wind, does not read, Attorney at Law, and it does not hang outside an office where strident esquires write briefs and file motions. His shingle reads Seymour Burton, and it hangs outside a snug and incredibly loveable East Village restaurant. (I guess he had other ideas, too.)
You see, while Cohn is by day a practicing attorney, by night he’s a chef who went to CIA, and has cooked at London’s River Café, and New York City’s Washington Park and Barbuto. He and his partner, the architect Adam Kushner, bought Le Tableau with chef de cuisine-partner Josh Shuffman (Sullivan Diner, Home). Their plan was to renovate and modernize this decade-old French-Egyptian bistro. But after a few weeks, the food and the concept just didn’t feel true to them. It was someone else’s dream, someone else’s vision, and it had worked well for ten years, but it was time to start over. And so they decided to scratch the original idea and turn it into a restaurant that reflected the food that they loved to cook and to eat—quirky, homey, and simple New York food. They conceived of a menu stocked with potato latkes fried in chicken fat, Katz’s salami and eggs, braised pork shoulder, oysters and sausages, and crunchy fried clam bellies with remoulade, and they chose to honor their fathers—Seymour and Burton—in the new restaurant’s name. They opened as a work in progress, redesigning the space as they changed the menu and the concept from French-Egyptian to idiosyncratic New York, adding a 45-foot communal table, tearing out banquettes, tiling and opening up the kitchen, and hanging a shingle outside the front door.
I first heard of Seymour Burton through the foodie grapevine, and planned a visit with two girlfriends for a random Wednesday night, one that coincidentally corresponded with Peter Meehan’s glowing $25 and Under review in the Times. When I first told my friends I wanted to check this place out they’d never heard of it and seemed dubious of my choice. How the Times can change things.
That night the place was buzzing. The smooth, long slender communal table was filled with the usual suspects, 20- and 30-somethings from the neighborhood dressed in hipster rag-tag thrift and a few cozy older couples with bifocals happily digging into latkes with applesauce and sour cream. Along the banquettes a few larger groups gathered, glasses of half drunk red wine in hand.
Ana, Shawn and I had a few glasses of Cava to start while we looked over the menu, which is written in white chalk on a smooth oversized blackboard that runs the length of the restaurant. It reads (with some strain from across the room) like a cross between Prune and Five Points. You’ll find duck liver toasts, polenta with burrata and marinated olives, quail stuffed with pork sausage, chestnuts and kasha, and brussels sprouts Grand Mere (with bacon and brown butter). We were having trouble deciding what not to order. Meehan had raved about the burger, but we weren’t in the mood. It was cold outside and we wanted some hearty winter food. But to start, we matched our Cava with the JW Pancakes ($15), an ode to Cohn’s mentor Jonathan Waxman. The dish is a classic: buckwheat blini topped with smoked salmon crème fraiche and American caviar—what could be wrong with that? When paired with Cava and good friends, not really all that much. But to be honest, the blini were really too much like silver dollars—rather sturdy and thick, and not delicate and thin as I’d expected.
Our oyster chowder ($9) was also disappointing. It arrived merely room temp, not piping hot, and was rather watery and lacking in any discernable seasoning. Hmm. I was confused. Maybe the rush of people had derailed the kitchen? But then we ordered another round of Cava and went to work on a shallow bowl of fried clam bellies that were perfectly cooked so that their briny juice squirted through a cloak of crunch ($10). Maybe not? But then our entrees that night were also middling. The pan-roasted chicken ($19) was spectacular, but the five-peppercorn pork shoulder with creamy polenta and gremolata ($18) was not. It was tender, sure, but shockingly bland considering the five-spice braise, and the “creamy” polenta was seemingly cooked with tap water and was utterly tasteless. Oh no. We were getting ready to be very sad for this adorable little restaurant. But then we tried the chicken and things changed. We were wowed—bowled over, even. The chicken is de-boned (other than the wing), and stuffed with a gluttonous and glorious combination of mascarpone, lemon zest, and proscuitto, then pan-seared on the stove for a nice crispy skin and popped in the oven for to finish and is served with sautéed greens. Slice into the breast and it oozes (rather suggestively) with mascarpone, to hilarious effect, actually. The breast meat is juicy as a ripe summer peach, and just as sweet too, and the salty proscuitto offers the right balance to the mascarpone, and the lemon zest lifts the flavors, sharpening them, and brightening the dish. It’s a winner.
But still, I was not convinced that this was their best night. Service was friendly and sweet, but rushed. On the night of a favorable review, they had too many tables, and they were in the weeds. I felt for them and vowed to come back, for the burger, and for take number two.
I returned last week with Mel, an old friend and yoga teacher who lives around the corner from Seymour Burton and who has a fiercely critical palate. Mel and I had lost touch and this was a reunion dinner of sorts and we got a chance to catch up over a bottle of red for a while before ordering. (She’s opening her own yoga studio soon and I’ll be sharing news of that once it’s ready to go.) Anyway, as the bottle was starting to disappear, we decided it was time to eat. The JW pancakes were off the menu, replaced by a wonderful potato latke—thick, crisp, and potatoey—topped with thin sheets of smoked salmon, a drizzle of sour cream and a dollop of caviar ($15). Mel is a vegetarian (well, a fishetarian), and she shared her latke with me, but I was on my own with a special of the night—a wintry goat posole in green chile-laced broth with hominy. While this stew was right on in terms of spice and beautiful flavor, again, the kitchen needs to get those soups hotter.
We loved the boquerones ($12)—small fresh briny Spanish anchovies served with slivered red onions on three hefty slices of olive oil-soaked crostini. We could have stopped eating right there, but why? I wanted to try the burger and Mel was intrigued by the Eden Farms Brook Trout with fries. And so we ate more. And I’m glad we did. As I write this, my stomach is yearning for another one of those burgers, an ample grilled pup, similar in size and shape to Corner Bistro, made from Pat LeFrieda beef. It’s served sandwiched between an oversized toasted English muffin, adorned with a layer of bubbly Vermont white cheddar and a few circles of red onion ($12), with a forehead high pile of fries—thin, golden and salty—on the side. Mel was happy with her trout—quite simply grilled with lemon and herbs, the right treatment to let the fish’s sweet flavor shine through, but I know I sensed a touch of food envy.
With our entrees we shared the brussels sprouts (some of the best I’ve had), and the mac’ n cheese, which Mel had informed me early on, she does not eat. “Why not?” I asked, not understanding how one could be against eating mac n cheese. It was not beef mac n cheese. I was confused. Mel clarified: “You know me, I’m Italian. We don’t eat over-cooked pasta with cheese. It’s sacrilegious.” Suit yourself, I thought. More for me. When it arrived, in a rectangular white casserole, all golden and breadcrubmed, she watched me dig in, the three cheeses (Gruyere, Sonoma Dry Jack, and Cabot White Cheddar) stretching in melting threads and gobs as it reached my mouth. After a few bites, she caved. “Well, I guess I’ll try it,” she said, sinking her fork into the center and pulling out a big cluster of glistening elbow noodles coated in hot gooey cheese. In between bites of my burger, I watched her return again and again to the mac n cheese, practically finishing the entire casserole on her own. “Glad you don’t like mac ‘n cheese,” I said, smiling.
Mel was also skeptical of the bread pudding ($7) I ordered for dessert, instead opting for the homemade selection of ice creams ($6)—caramel, chocolate bourbon, and coffee—so good and creamy they should be sold by the pint or perhaps ten-gallon vat. “I don’t understand bread pudding,” she said, as I dug in to the warm hunks of brioche soaking in cinnamon and cream. “What’s not to understand? It’s what you do with stale bread. You put it in a pan with cream and eggs and cinnamon or chocolate or whatever you’ve got lying around and you make something. It’s so you don’t waste,” I said. “In Italian households, we don’t do that. We make breadcrumbs. Why anyone would want to eat bread for dessert?” she replied, resolutely. “Okay, but do you at least want to taste it?” I asked. (She was already pushing her fork toward my plate.) She took a bite. She took another. “Well, I guess if I wanted to eat bread for dessert this would be delicious,” she said, fork already aimed straight at my plate. If only.
I left Seymour Burton very happy that I had come again, and already wanting to return for the burger, the latkes, the chicken, the Brussels sprouts, that great mac n cheese (and the lamb shank that looked so good but that I haven’t yet had a chance to try.) To be sure, the place is not perfect. The service gets weeded quickly and sometimes it can be a bit slow. (Perhaps menus on each table might help speed up the ordering process. The black board can be hard to see and at times waiters have to read off the menu to guests at far distances). And some of the food needs more attention—it needs to be hotter and more aggressively seasoned. But some of it is really terrific. It makes you smile and feel nourished and happy. Plus, let’s be honest. I have a soft spot for lawyers who hang up their own shingles—outside restaurants, that is.
Seymour Burton is located at 511 East 5th Street, between A & B, 212-260-1333.