May 23, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

The Dutch: My Kind of a Joint

A small package explodes with briny oyster and pickled okra remoulade. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our tight little foursome has found a window of calm in the clubby back room at The Dutch. I suspect chef-partner Andrew Carmellini’s new Soho joint is probably the most besieged spot in town right now. Yet the dining room is half empty at 8:30, awaiting the hipsters, nocturnal inheritors of the earth and ritzier-than-thou tall women who tend to swarm latish. Settled into a status booth – I had a number to call, I must confess – we’ve sliced each other a chunk of the cakey cornbread spiked with chile and scallions, still warm from the oven, a telling prologue of riches to come.

Café curtains in the laid back dining room open to a street view. Photo: Steven Richter

        I am quickly swooning over a tiny oyster sandwich, already a Twitter star in the first week since opening. The fat, briny, delicately fried bivalve, full and soft and voluptuous like Angelina Jolie’s lower lip, sports an ooze of mustardy pickled okra remoulade. All of us are oohing and ahhing over this $5 thrill. You definitely don’t want to share. At that price, insist everyone order one.

Homemade ricotta is the smoky surprise inside these ravioli. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s my second visit. I told myself I needed to taste more to be certain Carmellini, so good in Italian at A Voce and Locanda Verde, is just as inspired rethinking American regional classics. And that I hadn’t been mesmerized by VIP booth-possession that first evening or lulled by the measured laid back feel of bare tables, padded booths, half-curtained windows and the march of red-and-black metal light shades in the Roman and Williams design.

Asia White Boy Ribs. A kitchen joke, the chef says: “Asian flavor. White chefs.” Photo: Steven Richter

        It really was the mounting surprise and pleasure in what we ate: Smoked ricotta ravioli napped with tomato sauce. Hefty Asian-flavored ribs, tender and chewy, sweet and spicy (maybe a shade too sauced-up). The satiny mouth feel and aggressive flavoring of the grilled hanger steak with fresh greens and a tingle of horseradish on smoked potatoes. Oddly satisfying lamb neck mole, melting with fat, served in a sauté pan.

Lamb neck mole tosses green apple on juicy meat right in the pan. Photo: Steven Richter

         It’s not yet a month since opening, but the kitchen is faster on this second visit. The staff swarms with efficiency: busboys intent on filling those water glasses, clearing plates whether you’re finished or not. Sommelier John Nadel (here and at Locanda) guides us to a rich Rhone Syrah from Francois Villard that we all love and even busses the table when latecomers have everyone else running.

Two or three could share this gargantuan cider-glazed pork chop. Photo: Steven Richter

         Does each dish sound relentlessly complicated as our server recites its ingredients? The spice rub of the cider-glazed pork chop has two different paprikas, oregano and rough cracked black pepper. Creamy Vidalia onions frost creamy polenta, and hidden below, islands of collards harbor bacon and more Vidalias, honey vinegar and hot sauce.

         Seems like a lot of thought for just a few collard greens under a giant pork chop, I suggest to Carmellini over the phone later.

         “Well, I had 13 months to work on the menu,” he explains.

The dazzling chemistry of this hanger steak is the chef’s secret. Photo: Steven Richter.

         It took that long to wrestle the space into shape after adding the Elephant and Castle space on Prince Street and realizing the combined real estate needed a total gut job, says partner Josh Pickard, whose restaurant collection includes Lure Fishbar, Chinatown Brasserie, Joe’s Pub and Locanda Verde. Tall and a bit hunched from lean-over hospitality, he keeps a sweeping eye behind black-rimmed glasses on the back room action. “I used to drive by and covet this corner when it was Cub Room.”

You don’t need a secret telephone number to claim a spot at the bar. Photo: Steven Richter

         There’s no denying he and Carmellini have an aggressive following. But anyone can grab a space in the clamorous bar with its own menu, and locals crowd into the Oyster Bar room where 25% of tables are kept open for drop-ins, and a late night discount menu kicks in at 11ish.

The asparagus is from New Jersey. The sauce could be Jackson Heights. Photo: Steven Richter

         Actually, most portions here are old-fashioned American: generous, mostly big enough to share. A ceviche of clams, mussels and squid with Champagne mango, lime and red onion, almost a soup in fact, is enough for all four of us to taste, as is the New Jersey asparagus – pencil thin and green, correctly cooked, though its kaffir curry puddle with peanuts, mint and basil would be a reach in New Jersey. A splash of spicy Bloody Mary sauce gives shredded crab surprising oomph.

I am the only one not seduced by the famed Carmellini fried chicken. Photo: Steven Richter

         I’m surprised that I’m not knocked out by the legendary fried chicken special of Monday nights at Locanda. I’m put off by a too sharp buttermilk brine and the honey butter slick on top of the made-to-order-biscuits. Of course I’m a fool for biscuits and eat one anyway. The spectacular-looking rabbit pie could have a tastier crust, though its moist morsels of bunny with a gathering of spring vegetables is converting all rabbit agnostics at our table.

         Barely gelled sea scallops are marvelous too in a citrusy swirl of spring onions, peas, haricots verts, favas and Texas bulb onion. I’m wild for the genius gentrification of old-fashioned veal pizzaiola: pancetta ribboned slices of veal porterhouse paired with veal cheeks, fried artichokes and sweet peppers topped with clots of garlicky smashed San Marzano tomatoes and olives.

Chef Carmellini takes a pause in front of just-made Yukon potato chips. Photo: Steven Richter

         It would be wanton to resist desserts here. Carmellini worked with pastry chef Kieran Baldwin -- from Locanda under Karen DeMasco -- to get the same inventive edge and exuberance as he’s given the savories. The black pepper icing of the prideful Devil’s Food Cake is a memorable halfway between buttercream and marshmallow even before you get to the mint White Russian ice cream. Forbidden rice pudding cooked in coconut milk with pineapple, mango, passion fruit, macadamias and coconut ice cream astonishes one of our guests, a rice pudding fan.

Whatever you do, save room for this glorious celebration of rhubarb. Photo: Steven Richter

         The daily changing pie is rhubarb again – last time it was rhubarb apple. Now with rhubarb in full season, it’s full force rhubarb with rhubarb jam, scattered candied kumquats, and buttermilk-lime sherbet. It’s a crime to leave any behind because spring is so fleeting, but I’ve managed to spare a small morsel just to prove I can.

         Don’t let the name lead you to expect Netherlands Hete Bliksem or Bitterballem. It was the actual sound of the words that Carmellini responded to more than the discovery that these blocks were once Dutch farmland. “The Dutch” has an old time New York feel - “Damon Runyonesque,” he said. “It sounds like a joint.” And that’s what it feels like too, a joint with a canny interior decorator. You can dress up or dress down – in Chanel, or vintage Diane Von Furstenberg or a stupid backwards baseball cap – but I can’t predict how far ahead you’ll have to book to get an 8 o’clock table.

131 Sullvan Street NE corner of Prince, 212 677 6200. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 to 3 pm. Bar stays open for beverage service. Dinner 5:30 to 2 pm. Late night menu from 11 pm. Breakfast and brunch soon.


Patina Restaurant Group