Prune, 54 East 1st Street, New York City
Having savored every word of Gabrielle Hamilton’s candidly written memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, which details her unconventional and often challenging odyssey beginning at adolescence, when she was forced to fend for herself, to the consummation of her love affair with food — the opening in 1999 of her much talked about New York restaurant, Prune, I was totally psyched for my dinner there.
Prune is a neighborhood American bistro, influenced by the chef’s many multicultural culinary experiences. The physical setting is bright, animated and modest. The room is actually postage stamp size, seating 30 tiny tables that are cheek by jowl. Maneuvering into your seat without upending everything on the adjacent table takes some finesse, lots of sucking in, and no sudden giggles. There’s a tiny open kitchen and room for 4 at the bar. The original concept was to establish a neighborhood spot, but word about Prune’s eclectic menu and its confidently executed food and charm got out quickly, resulting in a Saturday night demographic that looked more like a blend of uptown, trendy boho, and tourists than east Village.
The place was packed when we arrived for our 8 p.m. reservation; we waited outside but were seated within 15 minutes with sincere apologies offered for the delay. The wait staff is knowledgeable, genial, and surprisingly patient, providing several samples of wine until we selected one that paired best with our food. The house treat served with cocktails was a bowl of salted roasted chickpeas.
In addition to a fairly ambitious seasonal menu, three specials were available: cold (baked) salmon, on a bed of soupy green rice; suckling pig with black-eyed pea salad, chipotle aioli, crispy skin, and pickled tomatoes; and baked whole branzino stuffed with fennel and lemon.
The two most decadent (read: lipid-centric) appetizers were butter-fried sweetbreads served with bacon and capers and roasted marrow bones served with grilled bread, sea salt, and parsley salad. The interplay of flavors in both preparations was faultless. The sweetbreads were tender, mild, and juicy with the bacon and capers adding a salty nuance that highlighted the sweetbreads. It was a finger-licking choice.
Our generous portion of rich, creamy marrow harmonized beautifully with the slight bitterness of the of the parsley salad.
For mains, we opted for two of the evening’s specials: salmon and branzino. The preparations were straightforward and not overly embellished. The flavor and firmness of the salmon worked well with the soupy style of the green risotto, while the moist branzino was subtly enhanced by the infusion of fennel and lemon.
During dinner, Gabrielle Hamilton arrived to help schlep a couple of large ice chests from the lower floor to the street. There were no pretensions from a chef with a fabulous book on the New York Times best seller list and one who continues to receive kudos from her peers. Smiling appreciatively, she stopped to acknowledge all the Gabrielle groupies who called out cheerful greetings and compliments.
For a perfect ending, we shared an order of ricotta fritters cloaked in dark chocolate sauce. Need I say more?