THIS RESTAURANT HAS SADLY CLOSED
New frontiers in NYC are harder and harder to come by. Back in the old days, friends and I would go on epic walks about town. We were kind of penniless but looking to be entertained, so our disappearing days would involve strolling through neighborhoods still un-gentrified and discovering a random cafe, makeshift art gallery, something fun to do with the balance left from whatever small cache we had – once we’d bought a copy of the New Yorker. Often the ‘hood we found ourselves in was the lower east side, then full of worlds now defunct, filled with arty riffraff and jetsam. Luc Sante captures it beautifully in his powerful book, Low Life about the New York of the seventies and the city that replaced it.
And this brings me to the now, the lower east side and Lowlife 2.0. Named for the book as well as the New Order album, Lowlife is a charming, casually elegant restaurant on Stanton just off way east Attorney St. So for the densely dining populated LES, this is slightly off the beaten kitchen pass. I first went in November and followed with one additional visit soon after. I’m remiss in writing about it and slightly forgetful on a few details, but I still remember how good it is.
It’s a knotty pine and brick walled world with romantically muted lighting, a soundtrack that allows for conversation, reclaimed wood tables, mid-century modern chairs by designer Jens Risom remade in nylon and the most important news – delightful food and a knock out wine list.
Created by partners Hugh Crickmore, formerly of Mas and the Tarlow empire of Brooklyn restaurants and Chef Alex Leonard of Blanca, it’s a gratifying meld of industrial chic meets Scandinavian cool casual and a seasonal, ingredient driven menu divided into three sections. You can share, you can hog.
Started at the bar with a glass of wine while our table was being prepared. 25 wines by the glass plus a variety of European and domestic beers to consider. Intriguing. But then there’s that pour. Huh? I appreciate that they’re hoping tiny tastes will allow the diner to explore the eclectic list with abandon, but then they might consider charging to allow for customer indulgence. It’s not an inexpensive glass.
There’s a front room, a 10 seat chef’s counter for tasting menus and a raised back area that create the backdrop of lakehouse swank for the 70 seats now filling this old tenement factory.
Artful plates adorn the rustic table and then there’s a warm sourdough pain d’epi fresh from Robertas in Bushwick. Complimented by an in-house made grassy butter, I could have stopped here and been thrilled. Chef also does his own in-house vinegars, pickles, kimchee, and cheese. And as it happens, much of the harvest comes from a farm owned by Mr. Crickmore’s brother in the Catskills. Local, familial, cozy.
An amuse of radishes with gremolata sets the tone. Bright, simple, earthy. And then the borscht arrives. Not your bubba’s beet soup but an ingenious nod to – if these tenement walls could talk.
A colorfield of three glorious quenelles shine brightly in a ceramic bowl. Icy beets were roasted in olive oil, herbs, then pureed with dashes of fish sauce and sherry vinegar. It would be stellar on its own but paired with sweet local cream and glistening lightly smoked trout roe, the combination of the mixed bite makes a brilliant pop of salt, sweet, cold, creamy…heaven.
Celeriac Remoulade, a classic bistro dish done up with just a bit more interest than usual. How often do you get to say – sensational – when having an upscale slaw? It’s ultra fresh, crunchy and the combination includes apple, pear and cranberry beans. Come…on.
Another small plate but very tasty share is the Fluke with Hackleback Caviar and Coriander. Gently aged fluke’s sweetness is enhanced by the briny caviar and a smoked dashi. Add in the aromatic of charcoal oil and these are the details that elevate simple dishes to something thoughtful and worth a return trip.
Beautiful, considered plating of plump bay scallops, romanesco on a bed of nutty grains, tricked out by the pouring of a light lemongrass sauce table side.
Piquant herring and sardines are lightly grazed with a roasted pine nut milk and chimichurri. One of my favorites of the evening. Tart and tangy.
Cubes of tuna and salmon roe with crisps, pungent and sparkling.
And then there’s that now famous Sasso Chicken Yakitori. An edge of char, crispy skin, it’s brined, it’s roasted and then grilled over fancy Japanese charcoal and served with smoked cabbage and green onions. It’s the talk of the town dish and served in half or a whole portion for $54. Eat it. You’ll talk about it longingly.
Probably the dish you’ve bought your ticket for, Guinea Hen. Not on every menu these days. People have called it a sausage of sorts, a mousse stuffed inside a crispy casing, reconstituted hen, a ballotine – but however you see it, you don’t want to miss it. Served inside it’s own crispy skin, delicate, flavorful and cooly arranged on the plate with roasted baby carrots and bitter greens. The greens are the perfect antagonist to the rather acerbic bread sauce made from house made yogurt and day old sourdough bread. You can’t get enough.
The wine list curated by the lovely Dhrubo Mazumdar is considerably longer than the menu. Small producers abound, interesting and sometimes affordable choices but all support the menu perfectly.
One of the several wines we had, a white anjou from the Loire, truffly, creamy, minerally to compliment both the scallops and the guinea hen.
Always a delight for the finish. And speaking of finishes…
The apple galette is a poem. A surprisingly old world dessert with layers of crispy cloud like dough, loaded with butter, fruit and a soupçon of ginger ice cream on the side.
Panna Cotta is everywhere at the moment but this one was just frothy loveliness.
Lowlife is a neighborhood spot in what still feels like an old world NYC neighborhood. Plus it has the added label of fine dining but definitely not the attitude. It’s very congenial and Chef Leonard’s way of presenting a creative take on time lauded pleasures we thought we were sure of, is distinctive as well as outstanding. Art from Mr Crickmore’s personal collection adorns the walls sparingly but it’s the choices in the bathroom you don’t want to miss. Ken Kesey? Neal Cassady? Seriously. With these wines, this food, you’re either on the bus or off it.
178 Stanton St between Attorney St/Clinton St
Monday – Saturday 6pm-1030 Closed Sunday