By Gary Walther
Photography by Josephine Rozman | April 23, 2015 | Food & Drink
At celebrity nexus Narcissa, André Balazs gives vegetables the star treatment.
Chef John Fraser uses barley for this risotto because “it’s a grain with a little more character.”
Considering the celebrity table d’hôte at André Balazs’ restaurants here and in LA, you might think that the name of his newest venture, Narcissa, in the recently renovated Standard Hotel East Village in Cooper Square, is a sly allusion to vanity. And indeed, New York’s fairest- of-all contingent has come: Ivanka and Jared and Chelsea and Marc on a double date; Olivier Theyskens, Patrick McMullan, Julianna Margulies, Jessica Stam, Leigh Lezark, A Small World CEO Sabine Heller, Laure Heriard Dubreuil, and Arden Wohl. But despite the nightly presence of these semi- and supernovas, your instincts have misled you, for Narcissa is about rare virtues in the Balazs Van Allen belt of celebrity—sincerity and earnestness. You heard me right.
Narcissa may be New York’s best tip of the hat to the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, for it is one man’s farm-to-table dream realized. The produce and some other products at Narcissa come from Locusts-on-Hudson, Balazs’ Hudson River Valley farm; the chef is John Fraser, known for his farm-fresh cooking at Dovetail (three stars from The New York Times; one star from Michelin); the menu has a broad swath of vegetable dishes; and—ta da!—there is a celebrity behind the restaurant, but (and this may be the real vanity shot) she’s a dairy cow.
Narcissa is, in fact, named after a Jersey-Brown Swiss crossbreed who is “the boss cow” at Locusts-on-Hudson. (She once took an afternoon off to go into town; now the fencing system is better.) Balazs speaks of her fondly: “She was the first and pretty much the only contender for the restaurant’s name,” he says. That’s her close-up, the big color photo at the left end of the bar. But here’s the kicker: Narcissa isn’t kidding—Balazs, either. While the menu will more than satisfy carnivores, it’s the vegetable side that sets it apart. As for the wine list: most of the bottlings are sustainable, organic, or biodynamic.
His signature Narcissa dish, carrots Wellington.
“We’re trying to create equal choice,” says Fraser, adding, “If you’re knocking back a piece of beef five days a week, there’s no way you can feel well.” This is a restaurant that has taken vegetable dishes to a new level without being ideological about it. It’s about taste, and Narcissa delivers—and with wit. “Our creativity is dictated by the farm,” he says, adding sotto voce, “like when 75 pounds of kale show up.”
The signature dish is carrots Wellington, a nice play on the classic beef dish created for the victor at Waterloo. On the plate, it looks like Stonehenge: standing wheels of puff pastry embracing carrot rounds that arrive in the kitchen fresh daily and are cured in sugar and salt. (“That is one person’s job,” says Fraser.) The carrots come out of the curing and cooking almost meaty, but they melt in your mouth—“a carrot on steroids,” as Fraser says.
Fraser has also raised beets to star status by roasting them on a rotisserie, treating a dense vegetable as you would meat. “We leave them on the rotisserie way too long,” says Fraser, but the result is a sweet-and-char fugue with grace notes of orange-infused oil. “The char keeps you coming back,” he says.
Chef John Fraser in the kitchen.
In other dishes, Fraser reimagines vegetables; for example, using Brussels sprout leaves as ceviche. The key is to extract the water, which is done by dusting them with cumin and then gussying them up a bit with smoked ham and Manchego cheese. It is somehow a new- and old-fashioned salad at the same time.
From here, the soft-core vegetarian can move to some semi-vegetarian dishes on the menu. There’s the barley risotto with littleneck clams—the barley because “it’s a grain with a little more character,” says Fraser, and indeed the barley does glisten like freshwater pearls in the table’s candlelight. The steamed sea bass, in a French curry broth over lentils, is a gorgeous collage set off by the herringbone skin of the fish, which sits on a plinth of vegetables.
“Transparency and openness” are the foundations of the restaurant, Balazs told me, citing the open kitchen and the spare Scandanavian/Shaker-style design. “There’s an honesty about Shaker and midcentury Danish and Swedish décor,” Balazs added with conviction in his voice. I understood perfectly. Narcissa comes across without narcissism, and if you can score a banquette along the case-window wall looking out on the garden, you’re on the A-list, although here, it’s lowercase “a.” That’s the house style. Revel in it. 25 Cooper Square, 212-228-3344