High on Charm: Charlie Bird
One word: Inconsistent.
Our reservations, virtually impossible to get (because it's on everybody's best-of list), were for Saturday at 6:30 p.m., which is the trick to squeezing in to those hard to get in places. I chose the early shift because I can't imagine a full meal at 10 p.m.
We walked through thick beds of snow on a crystal clear night chilly enough for my faux-fur jacket. The wet and slushy snow on Houston Street slowed our progress like sand on the beach. Alan's phone rang at 6:37 p.m. and it was the host wondering if we were coming. "Really?" I said, a bit incredulous. We started to jog. When we arrived breathless, I apologized profusely. What I didn't want to hear was that she gave away our table. She smiled and said not to worry. "Can I take your coat?" she asked.
The room is a pie-shaped wedge with two floors, putting one in the mood of a ship. On the port side along Sixth Avenue, you can watch the traffic move by out of industrial steel-framed windows, which open wide in the right weather. The shape of the restaurant almost seems to call out for a sushi bar, or a really cool loft-style apartment. So much so that in between courses I wondered where I should place my furniture.
Like an insert from a CD, the menu danced around between seemingly unconnected dishes under headers labeled large, small, raw, vegetables and pasta. Even though the restaurant name evokes a jazz great, it's not named for Charlie Parker. On the wall above our table were paintings of boom boxes, and Jay-Z played on the speakers. The decor is a mix of industrial architect (metal gratings with punched holes) and clean and functional (large shiny black overhanging lights). I was happy not to see the Brooklyn vintage vibe applied once again to a hot new restaurant.
Our waiter arrived with a big smile and wrapped in a blue apron. He towered over us and asked: Flat or sparkling? A warm white plate of crusty focaccia came to the table next. At first I wasn't sold on it. The focaccia was hard, salty and hefty. I worked through the bite and wondered why it wasn't soft and light. I chewed. (Like I said, it took time.) Did I like it? I paused.
We shared the octopus 'saltimbocca.' A perfectly cooked, delicious ensemble of chickpeas, bright and tender octopus, a root puree and a thin fried plank of prosciutto. I balanced them on my fork, the creamy, the protein and the nutty, and raised it to my mouth. This was a terrific bite and I was sad to be sharing.
The escarole salad with lemon, anchovy and parmiggiano did not say caesar salad to me when I read them, but when they came to the table, that's exactly what they were. Buried under all that pungent flavor was what looked like a loaf of bread turned into croutons. There were too many. Far, far too many. I moved aside the decadent crunchy toasts and tried to fork an overly coated piece of escarole. Between the two of us the greens disappeared quick. Sure it was tasty, but the balance of ingredients was off.
Torn between the clam risotto with lemon and fennel and the duck egg spaghetti with uni, I finally chose the former. The shallow plate of risotto came sprinkled perfectly with six clams, delicate fennel fronds and al dente grains steeped in clam broth with the occasional sandy grit to remind you that what you were eating was once in the ocean. The dish was light even, for risotto, both a mix of the kitchens light touch in the fats and the serving size, which I'll admit, a part of me wanted just a tad more.
Alan had the dry aged beef ribeye. The menu said it came with horseradish salsa verde and farm potatoes--aren't all potatoes from a farm? It came sprinkled with brussel sprout leaves, and not much else. I had a piece of the meat and it was tough. We brought up the missing ingredients to the waiter and he brought a small ceramic dish of piping hot potatoes. They didn't make up for a $38 dish. We also shared a side of the brussel sprouts, which every menu seems to include, like kale, and I'm not complaining, but these sprouts were fried to an inch of their life. They no longer spoke of their vegetable beginnings.
I felt bad that my main was better than Alan's, so when it came to dessert I let him pick. The light panna cotta came with a rich and buttery butterscotch (not light), poured out of a Heath pitcher. (Shout out to the awesome ceramic company in San Francisco.) Next to it was a candle. I blew it out and we dug in.
Inside those walls it is fun. It's loud and close and you'll rub shoulders and chat with your neighbors, who might have heavy accents from Long Island.
Grant Reynolds, the sommelier, might show you the secret back room with a giant oval table surrounded by red fabric chairs. He might tell you that it was very recently an apartment, confirming your original idea that Charlie Bird would make a killer pad. If you're really lucky he'll point out the doorbell proving it.
Inside those walls it was fun. Inconsistent, and fun.
Read a great interview with the chef, Ryan Hardy, in the Village Voice.