E.U. (European Union)
This restaurant is closed!
235 East 4th St (Avenue B)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 254-2900
Hours: Mon-Thu 11am-12am Fri-Sun 11am-1am
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: Justin Smillie
2nd Cuisine: Gastro-Pub
Area: East Village
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard Discover
Drama happens a lot in the restaurant business. Witness the latest round of chef casualties—Neil Ferguson (Gordon Ramsay), Chris Albrecht (Craftsteak), Ed Witt (Varietal)—and you get just a taste of the constant soap opera that unfolds behind the swinging kitchen doors. But drama is an understatement when one examines the long and winding road that makes up the history of European Union. Indeed, the story of EU—Jason Hennings and Bob Giraldi’s raw-bricked urban pub—was starting to taste Shakespearean. I hate to rehash it again—the closings, openings, the chefs, the battle with the community board—so you know what, I’m not going to. Let’s give this restaurant a fresh start shall we? After all it’s got a new (wildly talented) chef and it deserves a clean slate. The past can take up a lifetime in the present if you let it. So I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say, let’s not look back to the struggles that these guys have endured to get here. Let’s stick to the present, to where we find them now.
And where we find them, friends, is smack dab in the sweet spot. They’ve landed Akhtar Nawab, one of my favorite chefs, and coincidentally someone who’s also got a ghost or two in his kitchen past. He left Craftbar to open a place of his own—Allen & Delancey—only to have his backer pull the plug on the last round of financing. Ouch. When chef Sara Ochs left EU to work at The Spotted Pig, a mutual friend introduced him to Jason. They hit it off, and within days he was at the stoves of EU, developing a new menu and retraining the staff to kick some, well, you know. After cleaning house (save one cook), and bringing in and training a new kitchen crew, Akhtar and his team have hit their stride, turning out food that’s not only beautifully executed, and quite a joy to eat, but that also seamlessly fits with the concept. You kinda need to do all three to really hit the mark, and he does.
The menu at EU, which is actually also your placemat, printed in tall black sans seraf typeface on a wide rectangle of butcher paper, starts with tapas—generously portioned, palate igniting fare to share while you look over the wine list and plan out the rest of your meal. Mushrooms a la Greque ($6) are spectacular. Served cold, they are marinated and sort of vinegary and bright and almost pickled and beg for nothing more than a crusty piece of grilled bread (which is provided). The scallops ($7) are almost a turn-on—a few succulent raw ones—cool, creamy and slippery—are dressed in Meyer lemon and a touch of pureed and raw shaved hearts of palm. It’s fresh and bright and just gorgeous. Alison, who had been sharing the latest hilarious blind date story with Kiri and me, was rendered speechless when she got a taste of the scallop. She was in the middle of a really funny part when she went quiet. “Hey. Alison! Alison! Hello, anybody home?” we asked. We had to sort of bring her back to life. While Alison had her moment with the scallops, Kiri and I got busy with the Steak Tartare ($7), a luscious ruby red mound of rough cut raw steak seasoned up just right and topped with a raw quail egg. There were three very happy ladies at our table, can you tell?
As we looked over the menu, trying to figure what to have next, the music caught my attention. Jason does his own mixing on his iPod and at EU plays a mean ‘80s mix that included, well, name this tune—“Standing in the rain, with his head hung low, couldn’t get a ticket, it was a sold out show.” Name it! Come on, you know the song. Yes, you got it—Foreigner’s Jukebox Hero, which would be followed by Squeeze (Pulling Mussels from a Shell), and a few classics from the Police (Roxanne), and Depeche Mode (I Just Can’t Get Enough). When our waiter Ben, a young chap with a thick head of hair brushed forward in a heavy layer onto his forehead, came over to take our order, we talked a bit about the music. “I may be young but I am a child of the ‘80s at heart,” he said, responding to our love of Depeche Mode. “Really?” I replied. “You were probably a fetus in the 80s.” “Yeah, but I love Depeche Mode,” he said with a huge smile. “I do too,” I said. “I hope they play some Yaz.” Ben looked confused. “Yaz? Hmm. Nope. Never heard of ‘em.” Oh dear. Sadly, Ben had then lost all credibility as a child of the ‘80s. But he did promise to do some homework—Upstairs at Eric’s—and let me know what he thought. Note to Ben: I’m still waiting.
Bopping in our seats to DM, we ordered a bottle of Beaujolais ($30) to start us off, but I should mention that I have a beef with the wine list; its eclectic but there are not enough options in the $25-$40 range. But the wine was just what we were in the mood for, and married well with our first courses. Akhtar, who was known for his citrus glazed sweetbreads at Craftbar, brings them back here in a more rustic incarnation, glazing them with Marsala wine and tossing them with mushroom ragu over a thick cut slice of grilled bread for an irresistible mushroom sweetbread bruschetta ($12). The artichoke and spinach salad was just spot on, dressed in a vivid herb vinaigrette and topped with a breaded and fried Hen egg with a nice orange runny yolk ($9). Alison managed to clean the plate again. Kiri and I made a pact to be more aggressive with the meatballs, mini-poppers the size of falafel balls, spiced with cumin and served skewered with a yogurt mint sauce. I loved the seasoning and the flavor of these meatballs, but the texture was a bit rubbery. I think the recipe might need to be tweaked a bit.
Dinner moved us into a new level of joy. I think an award should be given out to all these chefs who manage to turn chicken into CHICKEN! Jimmy Bradley does it at Red Cat, his protégé Joey Campanaro is doing it at Little Owl, and Akhtar is doing it at EU, with his crispy skinned, pan-fried, oven-roasted juicy bird served in a shallow pool of Parmesan broth bobbing with hand-rolled ricotta and spinach dumplings ($23). My only complaint about this dish is that it needed more dumplings. Akhtar—can you please throw in a few more dumplings or add those to the list of sides? That would be great, thanks.
We also passed around a cast iron dish of the baked rigatoni—large ribbed tubes of pasta snuggled up with pulled tender milk-braised Berkshire pork, and Swiss chard, lifted up with a bit of lemon ($17). It’s a dish that’s rustic and hearty and eats like winter, so it’s probably coming off the menu in time for summer. I’d make a point of making it over there while the weather’s still cool and dig in. I’d say you can take some home and have it for lunch the next day but there’s no way you’re leaving any leftover.
For those who crave a good burger, Akhtar is serving a nice fat one topped with a sunny side up egg at Brunch, and at dinner ($15), two versions—the English, topped with farm house cheddar and brown sauce, and the Italian, crowed with Pecorino, proscuitto and roasted tomato confit. The fries are crispy and brown and pretty much make you realize that you have no will power and that any effort to limit the number of fries you consume is fruitless because you go weak in the presence of fried salty potatoes. It’s okay. It doesn’t make you (or me) a bad person.
Desserts ($8) will also play on your weaknesses. They are terrific, and it’s nice to see a gastro-pub to really pay attention to the last course. Pastry chef Mina Pizarro offers delicate sugared beignets, infused with just a hint of orange blossom, served with little puddles of milk jam and chocolate sauce for dipping ($8), and a Linzer torte with huckleberry compote and vanilla gelato. There’s also a cake that’s a version of those gold-wrapped Rocher bon bons. It’s a slim, super dense slice of sin that’s really more like an adult candy bar layered with salted caramel, chocolate and hazelnut. But the dessert that we all couldn’t get enough of was the English toffee pudding with caramel gelato. Mina’s version is light and moist and almost airy in texture—sort of like toffee in the form of some sort of magical evaporating cake that melts in your mouth. As she moved the pudding closer to her, Alison announced that she thought it should be illegal. I hope that doesn’t happen. I’d like to get at it again.
I’d like to get at much of the food at EU again and already have been back several times since Akhtar took over. I gotta say, the place just works. I group EU in with restaurants like August, Red Cat, Spotted Pig, Five Points—places that become your regular haunts because the food is immensely appealing to the point of being craveable (see CHICKEN, above). Because the room, designed by AvroKo with floor-to-ceiling steel-framed windows, amber blown bulbs, and salvaged pieces, is beaten up in that chic, weathered sort way that feels sexy and timeless. And, because, in spite of the past, in spite of the struggle, here in the present, they’ve found a little something called the sweet spot.
Review By: Andrea Strong