This restaurant is closed!
20 Prince Street (b/w Elizabeth and Mott)
City: New York, NY
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Cuisine: New American
Entree Price: $20-25
Payment: Cash only Amex
There is nothing like dining at a restaurant and having your expectations not only met, but surpassed. It's like going on a dreaded blind date, expecting a disaster on two legs, only to discover a charming, handsome candidate with wit and brains. While the latter has not yet happened to me, the former did the other night at Porcupine. Much of the credit for this cozy American gem in Nolita is owed to the chef, Matt Weingarten, a man with both passion and talent. He delivers a thoughtful menu filled with great food marked by deep and rich flavors. Indeed, Porcupine is what happens when a restaurant without a compass—Mix It—finds a humble and talented leader with a strong vision. It is a terrific little find. From the brown paper notepad as menu, adorned with a line sketch of a porcupine, to the still-life worthy artisan cheese course served with homemade fruit chutney and grilled figs, details are not missed. A warm pile of chestnut crepes ($12), freshly griddled from the pan, are folded up like dinner napkins alongside a parchment puff filled with a tumble of fragrant wild mushrooms. Spoon the mushrooms into the center of the nutty crepe, wrap it up like a burrito, and take a bite. You are happy now. Believe me. Tender slow roasted cauliflower, charred slightly at its edges, is served in a puddle of rich walnut puree dotted with plumped up dried cherries ($8). I could have this dish at dinner every night of the week. Sweet lettuce soup ($8)—a recipe from Escoffier—is made from dark romaine, celery knob, Boston Bibb, leeks, and a bouquet garni of chervil and tarragon. It is a great winter soup that is lifted up and given an elegant finish with lemon tapioca pearls that burst in your mouth. A sinful round of celery root pudding ($12)—what my friend Kiri correctly identified as a twist on the Italian sformatta (savory soufflé) is whipped up from béchamel fired up with Dijon and horseradish, celery root, and lots of cream, then set to rise and then left to collapse. On the pick up, Matt finishes it with more cream, so all the airy spaces of the soufflé get filled up with sweet cream. It tastes like a Yorkshire pudding, and it is fantastic, but not for light eaters. It is served with veal cheeks that are braised until melting in Mersault (a white wine). "If I used red wine, you would be nodding off in your bowl," Matt explained. There are two pastas on the menu, and they are both made by Molly Smith, who was Matt's salad cook when he was at Quilty's Loft. Kiri and I were not sure we could eat both, and so we ordered half portions of each. The first, a rabbit ragu nicely fleshed out over wide strips of hand cut pasta ($11/$17) filled the dining room with the intoxicating aroma of rosemary and thyme. (Or was it the wine that was intoxicating?) Anyway, Molly's ragu is not your typical smothered sauce—it is refined and delicate and surprisingly light—an adaptation of a traditional wild hare recipe that uses cocoa and dark spices like cloves, cinnamon, and juniper. The meat was tender and sweet and perfumed with herbs, the pasta was just right—dente, not too soft, not too firm. Her baked rotolo ($10/$16) makes Matt's celery root pudding look like spa food. She curls ribbons of pasta into a pair of spirals, and fills the rolls up with fresh ricotta, caramelized onions, currants, toasted almond, and herbs. The spirals are baked in the oven until bubbly, and presented in a cast iron skillet, making you feel like you are dining at a log cabin somewhere in the hills of Tuscany. When we started in on the pastas our plan was to have a few bites, and save room for entrees. Instead, we annihilated both of them. As they say, the greatest plans. We wanted to eat more, but there was just no room left at The Inn. We had shamelessly gorged on pasta. But if you exercise some restraint (or go with a bigger group), you can treat yourselves to robust and rustic fare like roast suckling pig with apple and celery knob ($22), oven roasted halibut with artichoke puree, pancetta and toasted hazelnuts ($24), crispy mustard braised breast of veal with lemon pickles (a dish I have heard raves about, $18), and a mussel and black fish stew with almond milk and acorn squash. There is also $12 brunch on the weekends— thick cut French toast with an almond apricot shingle, warm stone-ground white polenta with shaved bittersweet chocolate, poached eggs with double smoked bacon rashers and sweet shallot hollandaise on toasts, and ham Madaa'm with fried egg and vinegar radishes, and rye toast. Come on people! Café Habana's line is too long anyway. Try something new.
Review By: Andrea Strong