Heavenly Vegetables at Chez José
Chez José spares no expense in their seating choices.
In between waiting for my reservation at Chez Jose, two things occurred: the New Yorker reviewed them and a couple from Montreal stayed in my apartment. The review didn’t really set me back, but it did make it clear that I wouldn’t be eating somewhere unknown. A few days before our dinner I received an email from Chef José Ramírez-Ruiz, reminding me of the reservation and that it was BYOB.
I found out about Chez José from a sign. A smallish piece of paper taped in the center pane of a glass door of a rundown shack on Havemeyer Street. The note stated that it was home to a pop-up restaurant serving “vegetable forward” food. It noted they were open Tuesday and Thursday along with a Gmail address. I snapped a photo and posted it to Instagram and kept walking to my actual destination, a skeeball bar called The Full Circle.
The outside of the restaurant is paneled in wood that probably isn’t wood and angled above it is a sign reading: Lake Trout. Inside there are plastic shell seats that pivot from a metal brace and are connected to laminate tables. Kind of like a tiny Taco Bell. We handed our wine to co-Chef Pamela Yung, a petite Asian woman wearing a white shirt, white apron and large black Buddy Holly frames. We took a seat at a shared table for four, connected by our chairs and our love of the new. Jay-Z rap/talked out from the speakers mounted at every corner of the tiny room. At the top of the walls, like a child’s room edged with pink elephants, were giant tags in spray paint. At each place setting was a narrow slate plate the size of a napkin, with a fork and knife set atop.
Chez José: Rice balls with a crispy exterior and cheesy dipping sauce.
The meal began with a dish of fried rice balls. They were a dark dusty brown and were served alongside a creamy, cheesy looking sauce. Pamela, as she set them in front of us, may have said they were buckwheat, or burdock, two completely opposite items. Maybe even something else entirely. It’s a mystery, but they were crisp and hot, the cheese sauce reminding me of the kind you ate at a tailgate party (Pace hot sauce mixed with bright orange Velveeta cheese). As I licked my fingers they brought to mind Arancini, which I ate at my friend Nanda’s house in my junior and senior year of high school. Her family was from Uruguay and I loved to join them for dinner, but steered clear of the mysterious maté they passed around, each person sipping out of the same wooden straw.
While we waited for our next course, chatting with the young and exceedingly thin couple to our left, I swiveled in my plastic bucket to take in the rest of the crowd, if you can call eight other people a crowd. We all looked basically the same, even down to our ages, although I was probably at the table with the youngest, like I was at the kids table at Thanksgiving or Passover.
Chez José: Root vegetables afloat in a rich broth.
The next bowl placed in front of me came with a smile of root vegetables: parsnips, turnips, maybe a potato, all swimming in a rich broth dotted with fat. Along the edge of the bowl was a healthy swipe of a mustard-like sauce, thick enough to hang to the edge. The vegetables were tender and easy to cut with my spoon. I took a bit of one, along with broth and a tinge of the sauce. This dish would give any chicken soup or matzoh ball soup heavy competition for emotional warmth. I felt loved while eating it, and slowly worked my way to the very bottom of the bowl, tilting it so I could eek out the remainder of the life-bearing broth.
We drank more wine, something fuzzy and pink that Margot had brought. The couple next to us shared their giant magnum of Chablis. I didn’t love it, and returned to our wine.
Chez José: A deconstructed salad.
The salad arrived deconstructed, and on a plate. It was beautiful while also looking like the scraps you toss out in your compost bin. It was half covered with a band of pea puree, sheered pieces of broccoli––stems to frond, a few small skin-on potatoes and sprinkled with crumbs and seasonings that left me to wonder what they were, while enjoying their crispy crunch. It was the obligatory greens dish so completely removed from a bowl of lettuce that it was like I was standing on the ceiling or stepping up into a UFO. I loved it.
Chez José: Egg custard and blistereed tomatoes.
A short glass filled with yellow and orange came next. For a moment I considered the fun it must be to select dishware and array food, like installing a window display at Bergdorf’s that could change for every single person who sees it. The glass held egg custard and blistered cherry tomatoes. Even thought it was October, the tomatoes managed to taste like the apex of summer, and, mixing with the custard, they were golden rays delivered straight to my taste buds.
Chez José: Mushrooms in lobster broth.
The first peak of seafood onto the menu were mushrooms in a lobster broth. The oblong dish held an array of earthy fungus, shitake, chanterelles and a few slivers of onion, all cooked long and slow and deep. Tender and rich their intensity of musty earth was pushed into another world with the lobster broth, that actually looked more like a cream or a butter, neither of which I am afraid of.
There was bread at some point. A baguette and a roll and a wheat, served alongside a buttermilk butter. They were, of course, delicious. I never need bread, but when it arrives it’s like I’m a child again and don’t know how to say no.
The Pandora station stuck to one speed: Jay-Z, and men that sound like Jay-Z. But I didn’t mind. The loud, swank Gucci rapping songs, the plastic chairs and the horribly dingy bathroom kept the high falutin’ vegetable forward menu from swinging too high from the chandeliers.
Chez José: Butternut squash.
The final savory dish was a perfect circle of butternut squash, caramelized and decadent––a vegan dessert almost; it was topped with pepita seeds and a few swirly curves of sauce. I knew the actual dessert would come, which I wanted and didn’t want. First was a beet crème brûlée topped with sorrel foam. It held a sweet earthiness of beet and the fun crack of caramel. The green fuzzy froth from the sorrel, a perennial herb, added a kind of wheatgrass kick to the sugary high. Okay, so we’re done right? I’d had too much wine and I was ready to lean back a little and oh, what was this? Donuts? Sure, sure, I’ll try them. Crackly hard like a pretzel, fried and sweet like a doughnut, they were served along with a berry jam, so good, but there wasn’t enough jam to go around. I licked the salt and sugar off of my fingers and then, only then, could I say, “Thank you.”
P.S. And what of that Montréal couple that stayed in my apartment? Chefs themselves, they hosted the Chez José pop up when they were in Montréal. Small world.
Chez José: Beet & sorrel creme caramel.
Chez José: Doughnuts and jam.