September 26, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

A Bow to the King

What this opening crisp in a puddle of olive oil at King seems to say is “we aim to dazzle.”
What this opening crisp in a puddle of olive oil at King seems to say is “we aim to dazzle.”

          King is tiny, bright, and clean like the mostly Mediterranean food coming out of the open kitchen where three women bend over their work and a small Latino runner keeps out of their way. The colors are ivory and cream, with whitewashed bricks and panels of woven cane to keep passersby from peering in.

This is how King’s corner on Sixth Avenue looks early on a late summer evening.

          It’s just the latest aspiration on this village corner. What lures me now is a duo of chefs from the River Café in London and a New Yorker they met there who runs the dining room. I’ll admit I find it appealing that they are a trio of women.

Malfatti are gnudi by any other name, and these in sage butter with Parmesan are especially delicate.

          But I am even more moved by their rich malfatti clumps in a puddle of sage butter, gently salted with grated Parmesan. And the thin slices of veal slow-cooked in Soave, delivered on polenta with a ladylike gremolata. (Forgive my sexism as I report not getting much of a gremolata’s usual raw garlic punch.)

Guinea hen for two is roasted with rosemary and sauced with lemon and mascarpone, spinach aside.

          The guinea hen for two is a special triumph. The bird’s velvet flesh is exciting all by itself on first bite, but I need another quick mouthful dipped into the lemony rosemary sauce with bits of spinach. The $42 serving is meant to share, of course, and I fear my enthusiasm may be drawing too much attention, but never mind. I’ll have another tendril of meat dotted with mascarpone.

Wilted dandelion lies across roasted Honeynut pumpkin with chili heat and crème fraîche.

          King is less than a week old when friends and I first arrive at 7:30 and the room is almost empty. I like the old-fashioned gesture of tablecloths -- and more, the padding that tables are supposed to have under cloths, but rarely do in these flippant times. There are small dishes of salt and ground pepper on the table, too. Perhaps London cooks are less arrogant than ours.

          Our various servers are on their toes, but the busser is on our toes on both sides of the table and delivers the wrong dishes all around as the server smiles indulgently and we rearrange. Forgiven, of course, at this early stage. 

Chickpea fritters topped with anchovy croquettes come to us as an amuse.

          The refined seduction begins quickly with the toasted crackling crisp that arrives at the table like the winged sail of a toy boat. Perhaps, the chickpea fritters are boring that first night. They’re livelier a few nights later, sent as an amuse with anchovy croquettes on top.

It’s quiet in early evening when chef Jess Shadbolt drops off a trio of prawns not on the menu. 

           “I just popped these in the oven,” confides chef Jess Shadbolt, handsome and blonde, as she delivers three large charred prawns to our table. Were these on the menu? I wonder. “No. It’s a dish we’re working on,” she says. 

Veal shin slow-cooked in a Chanti Classico is wonderfully moist piled atop polenta.

          Elegance and simplicity reign here. A perfectly cooked quail, maybe not as rare as I like it, is tender and juicy, bathed in a warm tapenade and festooned with watercress. These energetic London imports have mastered the Greenmarket, of course. Foliage gets a workout on their very brief menu.

          My friends are not sure what to order. What is malfatti? they ask.

          “How about the steak?” I suggest, pointing to the listing. “The onglet. That’s a hanger steak.” Onglet is not translated either for non-French speakers.

Onglet is French for hanger steak, rare and sliced, hidden under giant late summer arugula.

          Giant arugula fronds almost hide the sliced beef, and that is indeed as rare as we asked and bathed in a tangy Etruscan green sauce. Peter the steak maven thinks it should have been marinated longer. I cut off another chewy morsel and find I don’t really care.

Roasted radicchio with Prosciutto di Parma could be a main course.

          I could be content here with just vegetables any time I’m in a mood to resist whatever bird is on the daily-changing menu. Baby artichoke leaves Romana are planted in salt cod or served with radicchio and prosciutto. Wilted dandelion lies across roasted Honeynut pumpkin, with a surprise whack of peppery heat not totally cooled by crème fraîche. The county fair-winning pumpkin on display in the bar could be the star of tomorrow’s dinner and the day after that.

The server brings a stemmed glass of Concord granita, then pours Sirelle Bronca Prosecco on top.

          At the end, a server carefully pours Prosecco on top of the Concord grape granita. And I find the house’s unusual plum and almond tart – mostly a fruity stickiness of crumbs – enchanting.

Servers brush up against Manager Annie Shi in the tight spot that is the service station.

          That weekend, I contemplated rushing to write a first impression.  I’m not sure if it’s professional caution or unbridled appetite, but I decide to taste more first. Arriving early a few days later, I wait at a table in the bar near the door, watching waiters and manager Annie Shi pressed together in a small space just outside the dining room in what seems to be the only service area.

Eventually, the house will seat diners in the bar and outside as long as weather permits.

          My $20 flip phone sounds the arrival of a text – “You’re due at King in 30 minutes,” it reads. “Pro-tip: Order the cochonnet cocktail. Very refreshing.”

Partners Jess Shadbolt (left) and Clare de Boer hired a non-cook to work beside them.

          Ruth Reichl arrives with a friend (surprise, hello) and then my three pals. We are seated close enough that I can see what Ruth is eating and watch the three cooks – bunned hair bobbing -- in the kitchen watching us. It’s a full house and the air conditioning isn’t powerful enough to hit my corner against the wall. But the crew is more practiced now, a definite plus. Liam, our waiter, takes no notes on our order, blaming his Irish heritage as a curse for the need to show off.

Thin petals of fennel sausage (finochhietta) are on the menu or may come as an amuse.

          I order the cochonnet as instructed: gin, cognac, Cocchi Americano and Crème de Pêche. Not as boozy as it sounds. The house’s signature crisp sails onto the table quickly. And then thin petals of fennel sausage, and that panisse amuse again -- chickpea fries tarted up deliciously with anchovy fritters.

With everyone helping themselves, the luscious veal cruda quickly disappears.

          About half the menu is new to me. My friends order malfatti and the roasted Honeynut pumpkin, and everyone shares my veal carne cruda – a sensuous tartare laced with Fontodi (2015), a Chianti Classico, and draped with giant arugula and shards of Parmesan. 

Zucchini and their flowers with flagelot beans and basil is offered as a main course for vegetarians.

          I taste the bright green stew of zucchini and their flowers with flageolet beans, basil and Capezzana 2015, an olive oil so important it gets dated. There’s a large half of lobster, carefully cooked, littleneck clams, fluke and tomato in our host’s Provençal fish stew. I find it a tad bland. I want to paint its saffron aioli on everything. 

A large, perfectly-cooked lobster is the star of one evening’s Provençal seafood stew.

          But that’s the evening of the guinea hen, and I’ve already had more than my share. The designated sharer is a tall, very slender woman who apparently stays that way by not eating the last four bites as I do. It’s a discipline I never cease to admire but am glad it’s too late for me to acquire. Before anyone can reconsider, I offer to take the leftover bird home.

The chef partners do dessert, too: their chocolate tart is spiked with Meukow VS cognac.

          The Concord grape granita comes as a gift with the cognac-spiked chocolate cake we order. I watch my restrained neighbor piling bits of  “Madame Moriatz’s chèvre” on shards of crostini. Helping myself, too. It’s a pretty, original presentation. No, Madame Moriatz is not a cheesemaker you need to know about. She’s someone the owners like who owns a hotel in the south of France. The menu is booby-trapped with untranslated information and unknowable asides.   

Madame Moriatz’s chevre in a puddle of olive oil is draped with another flying crostini.

          I’m still thinking how different King is. Confident, professional, pretty. It strikes me as feminine. Jess Shadbolt disagrees. “It’s more London,” she says. I can’t argue. I haven’t been to London for decades. Soon, the more traveled will chime in, I suppose. For now, the kicker is simply that King has arrived and it’s wonderful.

Even if you’re not into cognac, you might want to buy Meukow VS for its panther on the bottle.

King Street on the SW corner of Sixth Avenue. 917 825 1618. Monday to Wednesday 5:30 pm to midnight. Thursday to Saturday to 1 am. Closed Sunday.


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