The Oyster Room, the haute spot for lunch

On the corner of those two great New York urges—for sanctuary and for socializing—stands the unsung spot that has long nurtured both, the corner pub. It bespeaks the old values: rootedness, reliability, slap-on-the-back affability, a dusky (even at noon) neighborhood haunt where everybody knows your name. In Manhattan’s endless riff-and-recycle of restaurant genres, the corner pub is periodically subjected to high-concept makeovers when one of the key ingredients and a rare commodity in Manhattan—a corner, not to mention the right corner—becomes available. Of course, there are other places working the same retro turf as The Dutch, notably The Waverly Inn and The Lion up in the Village. The former lacks the egalitarian spirit of the corner bar, which The Dutch, for all its sophistication, retains. The latter has a bar with a muscular, rough-and-ready feel, but a dining room rife with dotty Anglophila, with all those paintings stacked up on the wall willy-nilly. In both design and cuisine, judging from experience and hearsay, The Dutch works it better than both.

The Dutch, which opened last spring at the northeast jut of Sullivan and Prince Streets, is the corner pub for our time, judging by the critics and the crowds. Former New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton anointed The Dutch his top new restaurant of 2011, many mainstream foodie websites have thrown it voluptuous bouquets, and a restaurant spokesperson actually told me that it didn’t want more publicity for its highly coveted dinner tables. Nice work if you can get it.

The Dutch is a cozy brick-faced warren. When you enter, you see the twopiece front room, in which a service island—a bar and a 10-seat oyster bar with a very small selection of bivalves—cleverly divides the space. Twist your head 90 degrees and you’ll glimpse the dog-leg corridor to the nearly-impossible- to-book dining room, open only for dinner. There are tables in the bar section, but at lunch the Oyster Room, as it’s called, is where you want to be, preferably at table 29. The table sits neatly at the junction of Prince and Sullivan, and from it you have a view down either street. On a rainy January Friday, my glimpse along Prince had a gray-grainy, ’50s-era photo feel, as though the neighborhood were still a haunt of someone like James Dean.

The Oyster Room has become a parallel universe Grill Room for the downtown media and arts set—“the whole Gen X-Y food-crazy elite assembled to eat oysters and drink Cutty and absinthe,” as Sifton characterized it in his Times review. That includes Lockhart Steele, founder of the real estate website curbed.com, model Heide Lindgren, and Arianna Huffington (no ID required). Celebrities from other universes have been sighted here: Minka Kelly and Derek Jeter, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert. The last named pair might have given The Dutch chef Andrew Carmellini arrhythmia, but probably not. Carmellini speaks classical Continental cuisine fluently: He previously ran the kitchens at Café Boulud, A Voce, and Locanda Verde.

At The Dutch, however, he is bringing his formidable technique to bear on an Esperanto of dishes. The lunch menu includes highly polished renditions of down-home American classics (fried chicken), European bistro staples (steak tartare, octopus a la barca), Asian fusion (lemongrass chicken soup, branzino with mussels and lemongrass curry), and one dish that I just can’t pigeonhole: “smoked liverwurst, huckleberries, ale bread.” And then there are the oysters—Kumamotos as supple as a gymnast, and the day I was there, Beausoleil pillowy and sweet—so good that both seemed hand-picked.

But that’s the key to The Dutch’s MO: a very skillful orchestration of raw real estate into a casual hang-out, high-low clubhouse, homey but handmade. The food is the point, but to paraphrase James Carville, it’s the ambience, stupid. Carmellini can do these dishes with one hand tied behind his back, although he rightly says that “cooking well is the same no matter what you’re doing.” Says Colman Andrews, editorial director of thedailymeal.com and the erstwhile editor of Saveur, “It’s a little bit like chefs in Paris doing bistros on the side.” But at The Dutch, Carmellini and his partners, Josh Pickard (Lure Fishbar, Chinatown Brasserie, Time Cafe) and Luke Ostrom (Locanda Verde), have whisked this world-hopping cuisine into a corner bar with an aesthetic chaser, for a generation that enjoys reading cultural allusions the way a geologist does sedimentary rock.

“We really paid attention to the strata,” says Robin Standefer of Roman and Williams, who created the interior with her partner, Stephen Alesch. Their résumé includes the Ace Hotel (The Breslin), The Standard (the Boom Boom Room), and the Royalton revamp. “The strata” means that The Dutch is a layer cake of cultural references. The brickwork alludes to Soho’s industrial heritage, the Mary Boone and Robert Miller gallery posters to its 1970s art-meets-commerce past, the customdesigned globe-light chandeliers to Andrew Carmellini’s childhood memories of Midwestern places where he ate with his dad, the oyster bar to his love of bivalves, and the tables (“big fat, beautiful, solid pieces of oak,” says Standefer) to the restaurant’s own burly past—but customdesigned for The Dutch’s sleek present-perfect tense.

The culinary and aesthetic mash-up has propelled The Dutch into the Mount Rushmore of Soho lunch spots, alongside Balthazar, Da Silvano, and Lure Fishbar. On the afternoon I dined there, the Oyster Room seemed a perfect expression of what Soho has become at lunch: groomed rather than edgy, boho establishment rather than bohemian, comfortable with itself rather than taunting the world.

The Dutch may be one of the hardest tables to score in Manhattan, but in a tip-of-the-hat to the corner pubs’ egalitarian ethos, it holds one table open for walk-ins, even at Thursday and Friday lunch and on Friday and Saturday night, the toughest times to book. Hey, you never know. 131 Sullivan St., 212-677-6200

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