There’s something special about flying into New York City late in the evening, watching the skyline shimmer as you prepare to touch down, knowing that at the end of the journey lies a dinner reservation with tasty implications. You crane your neck to catch a glimpse of the neighborhood where, in minutes, you’ll be sharing a tartare or bone marrow of some sort with a loved one.
I miss New York, it felt like coming home, and one of my favorite things about returning to one of my old towns, is checking out all the new eats that have popped up in my absence. Beauty & Essex happens to be one of those, having opened mere months after I had flown south. After a delayed flight caused me to miss my much-anticipated table at Alder, I made some last-minute adjustments to my itinerary and somehow managed to land a table at Beauty & Essex for 11:00 pm. “That’s a safe time”, I said to myself, “the crowds should be dying down by then.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.
photo: Jason Michael Lang
I met my little sister outside an unusually busy pawn shop storefront, complete with bouncer. We were pointed past the glass cases containing antique wristwatches, and through a door way surrounded by vintage guitars. The next room exploded with sound and energy as if the threshold we had just crossed was a time warp to Studio 54 circa 1977, only with more dubstep.
We were escorted through room after room like a Flintstones panning shot until we arrived at the dining area, plush and filled to the brim with hyper-hungry diners. The noise level is substantial, it takes a mild scream to get anything across the table or even your server. This might be a negative to some, I found it energizing. The contrast of high energy dance club atmosphere in a decidedly high-end dining setting was an experience, but could the food sustain the same level of controlled chaos and still deliver the impeccable quality we’ve come to expect from this city?
Though we sampled eight dishes, it only took a couple to answer that question.
A soothing amuse bouche of warm pumpkin and mushroom soup arrived just in time to distract us from the adjacent table of posers doing their best Pauly D and Snookie impressions. The incredible din all but disappeared as we snacked on luxurious, bite sized toast with Hudson Valley foie gras terrine with smoked peach jam and homemade corn nuts. Steak tartare on chive and sticky rice cakes and crispy mustard was a refreshing take on an old classic.
The tasty canapés ramped up our appetite for a succulent roasted bone marrow with a punchy rioja braised shallot marmalade. Six spoons filled to the brim with tangy tomato soup presented a floating dumpling of gooey cheese and smoked bacon. A creative presentation with flavors that were instantly familiar.
Naturally I had to sample two of the pasta dishes. Basil pesto ravioli with blistered heirloom cherry tomato were outstanding. The tart broth and perfectly cooked pasta created the perfect foundation for a pesto which was clearly made that day with fresh picked basil as the grassy, citrus notes were front and center. I’ve sampled enough pestos to know how quickly the flavor can deteriorate. Equally impressive with a completely different personality was the garganelli with spicy veal bolognese and a mountain of whipped ricotta from Little Italy. The veal and cheese played good cop, bad cop with my taste buds, at once decadent and delicate. A subtle drizzle of balsamic balanced the dish with a touch of sweetness.
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to dessert. For the PSL crowd, there’s a pumpkin pie bread pudding with cranberry compote. Chocolate fiends can sample the devil’s food layer cake with dark chocolate glaze and concord grape sauce. Haven’t had enough booze? Try the fireball hot chocolate shot with cinnamon whisky and vanilla marshmallow. For me, there was only one option, the box of doughnuts. Dueling trios of vanilla beignets stuffed with chocolate hazelnut creme and raspberry jam fought for my affection. It was like picking your favorite child, it just couldn’t be done.
I left Beauty & Essex in an even better mood than when I arrived. Some purists might rag on Chris Santos for appearing on Food Network shows from time to time, but my experience at his joint in the Lower East Side solidified my opinion. It was top shelf food in a city known for top shelf food. Eat here, now.