And like the nutjobs that will wait patiently for the privilege to stuff their craws at Franny's, the nutjobs huddled outside of tiny, perpetually-packed Prune are totally in the right.
I'd read a piece by the chef and owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, back when I first moved here in 2001; I loved her no-bullsh*t sensibility and tone, her fearless menu items of then-unfashionable marrow bones, deviled eggs, and Triscuits topped with sardines.
Problem was, everyone else seemed to dig this, too, and I'm not one who enjoys the notion of jockeying with Chelsea Clinton for a seat at brunch.
So, years later, after the trend-eaters trailed off in pursuit of newer New York Times raves, I was wandering around 1st and 1st and remembered my dream deferred. After all, I've got no problem jockeying for tables with true devotees. This is my new-old favorite spot to go toe-to-toe with trusted, serious eaters.
I truly heart the staff here. Recently my friend Susan (AKA Soft-Spoken Feisty Lady) and I poked our heads through draft-reducing door drapes, and asked as sweetly as we could if they were able to accommodate a couple of hungry knockabouts.
The host, without of trace of irony, said that he had a strong psychic feeling that an upcoming reservation for 2 was about to be a no-show--we were welcome to hang at the teeny bar to see how it panned out, if we were so inclined.
He then gave up his square foot of space at the bar, where he'd been conducting his hostly duties, so that we'd have room to cocktail. While we were sipping our refreshingly no-frills mojito and sidecar, he sent over an order of deviled eggs to thank us for waiting.
I feel that there are few forms of hospitality more potent than a deviled egg. (You had me at "extruded seasoned egg yolk.")
We made a quick caloric memory of the eggs and got to work on an order of French Breakfast Radishes with Butter and Kosher Salt. This is a combo that as a foodster, I've heard lots about, but never managed to try. It sounds pretty unassuming, but the sum of these parts had us floored--the creaminess of the butter gently muted the peppery nature of the radishes, and the salt seemed to create an instant brine as you chewed. Think shatteringly crisp, rich pickles.
(Definitely something I'd love to duplicate at home! FANCYPANTS!)
As predicted, a table for 2 did open up--hooray! We were happy to get out of the host's way and ultimately plot our digestive demise. Maybe it was the radishes or the spunky classic cocktails, but Soft-Spoken Feisty Lady and I thought it would be a GRAND idea to order the legendary Marrow Bones, the Sweetbreads with Bacon and Capers Sauce, the Rib-Eye with Herb Butter for Two, AND friggen Cauliflower with Baby Turnips and Brussels Sprouts.
There should be a cautionary clause at the bottom of the menu, forbidding this combination.
The marrow bones were roasted, served with salt, grilled country bread and a parsley-shallot salad. Some favor the more baroque treatments, like the marrow bones at Blue Ribbon (where it comes with oxtail marmalade) or at impressive newcomer Allen & Delancey (where it's deboned and topped with caviar). While I'd never turn those dishes down, I admire Prune's spartan restraint in this arena--marrow is the apex of indulgence, the Big Daddy of Animal Fat Consumption, and to those who love it, marrow doesn't require much gussying up. If (God forbid) I had to live in a world without foie gras, I'd be able to sleep at night, knowing carnal, heart-stopping satisfaction still lurks within the very bones of cows. WARNING: If you trim fat and gristle from your steak, chances are you're not gonna be a marrow bone fan.
Which brings us to our one remorse-order: the Sweetbreads with Bacon and Capers. This was NOT because that the sweetbreads weren't good, but because there was only so much offal that we two could comfortably stomach in a single course. And since the more subtle sweetbreads came out at the same time as the marrow, they didn't stand a chance. It was a shame, because they'd stand alone just fine; beautifully crispy on the outside, tender and creamy within, draped in smoky pig and swimming in a glorious lemon-butter-caper puddle. It broke my heart, but it was just too much. My taste buds were KOed. Next time (and there WILL be a next time), we'll get the sweetbreads on their own, or bring more people along to help redistribute the animal fat in less lethal doses.
We knew we were in trouble.
I searched my pockets for the letter I'd written to my mother years ago, just in case I keeled over from a self-induced stroke in a restaurant. Unfortunately, since domestic postage has been creeping up, she'll have to learn about my death by reading the front page of the New York Daily News: "Even in Death Throes, Chinese Carnivore Refuses to Unhand Steak".
The arrival of veggies brought little relief--you can't tell by looking at this piccie, but at the bottom of that bowl of robust cauliflower, turnips and brussels sprouts is a pool of cream and butter.
Momma didn't raise no crybaby. SSFL and I ate with rapidly depleting confidence and gusto; we ate to the brink of cholesterol collapse. We got through most of the heavily marbled, well-charred steak, and I think we may have even polished off the veggies. I can't be sure. I was too distracted by my ancestors speaking to me in the iridescent grease slick of steak juices and melted compound butter.
Dessert, they were saying.
Our host, apparently familiar with this out-of-body trance, gently eased us back into our coats, and told us to come back soon in a manner so earnest that it restored my faith in humanity.
Seriously, peeps. There are LOADS of places to eat until you blackout, but when was the last time you were bowled over by a chef who knows when to hold back (without patting herself on the back), a yellow-lit room no bigger than a East Village studio, or genuinely courteous and gracious front-of-house folk?
Not once did we feel rushed, pressured, or as though we were imposing on the staff. There was no lengthy explanation of dishes, no diatribe of local farm brands or genealogy diagrams for any of the many animals we consumed. We didn't even hear an invocation/mention of an omniscient "Chef" (read: "Chef is very proud of today's super-local specials. Chef raised our bacon hog, Brunhilda, in her very own bathtub. Brunhilda ate only organic vegan scraps consecrated by one-handed mystic monks.").
Prune is a restaurant that isn't better than its customers. Sad to say, true hospitality is all it takes to separate a place from the pack. I'll take it over any trend, any day.
54 E. 1st St.
Between 1st and 2nd Ave.
NYC, NY 10003
Note: Price-wise Prune kinda skates the line between Bling Dinners and Cheap Eats; they average $15 for an appetizer, $25 an entree. For my impoverished ass, this isn't exactly cheap (though worth every penny!) and since having a reservation is helpful, it kinda bumps Prune up to planned/occasion dining. Which shoves it more into the Bling Camp. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Still want to try: Brunch, Head-On Shrimp with Anchovy Butter, Monkfish Livers on Toast, Grilled Quail, Rolled Loin of Lamb, Stewed Chestnuts with Ricotta