Market Table and Shopsins
When one classic relocates, another is born.
Thu Oct 25 2007
Photograph: Wendy Huang
The West Village lost a bit of its iconoclastic soul last year when the famous Shopsins ended its quarter-century run of crankiness and byzantine food combinations. Recently, the legend on the corner of Carmine and Bedford was replaced by Market Table, and reborn at the Essex Street Market—a development that speaks to the occasional benefits of change.
In Market Table, Shopsins has a worthy successor. Sure, Kenny Shopsin’s diner-on-crack was timeless, while the trendy Market Table embodies barnyard chic. The latter’s owners, who brought us the Little Owl, have purveyor worship down. This is evidenced by the wine list, where there’s a paragraph on every producer, and more notably, at the general store in the restaurant’s entryway, which peddles local goods and prepared foods. Remember that the original Shopsins sat within the carcass of an old-time grocery, albeit one that was more likely to carry Atomic FireBalls rather than LaFrieda burgers.
Market Table has exorcised the Shopsins-era bric-a-brac and replaced it with a simple dining room of wooden tables, big windows and a you-can’t-miss-it yellow awning. More critically, chef Mikey Price (the Mermaid Inn) keeps things relatively informal—and he can really cook. With his short, seasonal menu, Price impresses less in concept—almost all of the dishes, whether beet salad, crab cakes or pan-roasted chicken, are standards—than in superior execution.
Given Price’s previous experience, it’s no surprise he excels at seafood. He reinvents bacon-wrapped scallops with beautifully seared, firm mollusks and smoky bacon served over featherlight grits, accented by candied-orange syrup. The grilled arctic char, a buttery, wild-tasting fillet, is splayed over a similarly downy bed, this one of mushroom-radicchio risotto.
Less successful, though by no means unenjoyable dishes, included Price’s slightly gummy gnocchi appetizer with braised short ribs and Parmesan broth—the firm, shredded beef, escarole and a zesty stewed tomato made up for the imperfect dumplings. The lean strip steak tempers lusciousness with a pleasantly gamey flavor, though a heavy char overwhelmed the dish.
Such oversights are rare. The side of hush puppies, crispy, grainy nuggets served with honey butter, rank among the best I’ve ever had. Meanwhile, many of the desserts—notably a pistachio muffin frosted in mascarpone, and a subtle chocolate-banana bread pudding—go easy on the sugar. Very adult.Shopsins doesn’t serve dessert at all, yet still has a menu full of kitchen-sink dishes ideal for a 12-year-old palate: pumpkin-pistachio–peanut-butter–cinnamon pancakes and chicken burrito soup, to go with sloppy joes and Frito pie. Nothing seems to have changed in the move, eats-wise. Like Madison Square Garden, Shopsins carries its mystique from location to location.
If anyone thought this exceedingly eccentric place couldn’t be improved upon, they should visit the new locale. Shopsins is a spot-on fit for the equally eccentric 67-year-old Essex Street Market. Kenny Shopsin has installed grocery store shelves above the counter, and slings out food through a window like a short-order cook. With just 20 or so seats and no takeout, locals, young and old, queue up or sit on the floor like refugees, waiting for a chance to enjoy any number of dishes from the 200-plus item menu, such as the Sachmo (andouille, chili, raw onion and cheddar sandwich) or a Loco Moco (sunny-side-up eggs over hamburger, rice and gravy).
There remain moments of bizarro brilliance: macaroni and cheese pancakes, the salty dough melding with the pasta like some starchy double helix; a huge slab of taco-fried chicken, with crushed shells providing the crunch, habanero sauce the kick. There remain astounding failures: the Che (poached eggs over a thin quesadilla, with a gruel-like chili cream sauce); chicken pistachio curry (which tastes faintly like burnt rubber). But every dish remains an adventure, which is really the measure of Shopsins’ brilliance.
The cantankerousness, another of the chef-owner’s trademarks, hasn’t gone anywhere, either. On one visit, I was told that the wait would be 45 minutes, in a tone that was really saying, “Please go eat somewhere else.” The folks at Market Table, meanwhile, were uniformly gracious. On one visit, I showed up 45 minutes early, and wistfully suggested a quick seating might allow for an extra turnover. “Don’t worry about that, you’ll just have more time to enjoy your meal,” the hostess replied. Such pleasantries are always appreciated. As is old school ribbing. New York is richer for having both.