Young restaurateur Gabriel Stulman is an A-list impresario in the making, with a trio of hot eateries---including Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey's Grocery---clustered within a three-block West Village radius. His new spot, Fedora, is the most chef-focused of the bunch, matching Stulman's trademark hospitality with destination-worthy cuisine. The affable host is still at the door, converting newcomers to regulars with a smile and a handshake---but the food, for the first time, does most of the work.
Stepping out of his comfort-food comfort zone, Stulman has recruited his first daredevil chef. The young Canadian Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly--- a veteran of Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal---serves Quebecois party food for epicurean hipsters that's giddy, excessive and fun.
Brunet-Benkritly makes his New York debut in a historic venue that last summer still catered to octogenarian barflies, an unlikely beachhead for French-Canadian gluttony. The 60-year-old West Village landmark, lovingly refurbished by Stulman and team, retains its clubhouse feel. But the cocktails these days are mixed with house-made bitters and served alongside some of the city's most exciting toe-to-tongue cooking.
The food is eccentric, yes, but not so extreme you couldn't, or wouldn't, want to eat here twice a week. While the chef's crispy octopus with brown-buttered sweetbreads is an inspired and challenging take on surf and turf, there are also plenty of accessible treats. Replacing the usual bar burger is a killer steak sandwich, with horseradish aioli and shoestring fries stuffed into the bun. Salt-cod fritters are light as beignets, and a big dinner salad is a riotous number with rock shrimp, avocado, shaved fennel and Manchego. Then there's a very fine steak tartare, an offbeat and elegant spin---a little bit Asian, a little bit French---that combines a hand-cut fillet with sriracha mayo, flying-fish roe, crisped rice and shallots.
Brunet-Benkritly clearly has a soft spot for big, blustery flavors, and a real macabre sense of humor. His fried chicken, served like a salaryman lunch over sushi rice and bitter greens, arrives at the table with a sharp claw still attached, the bird's confited leg and thigh covered in crisped rice and bread crumbs---a coating so flavorsome, you might be inclined to nibble those toes. There's a feasting quality to so much of the food here---my table tore gamely into a deliciously sweet, sticky duck leg with dates and cilantro. Still, the giant pork chop for two---a double-thick monster split lengthwise with crisp pickled veggies, nutmeg-spiced meatballs and cabbage, and crumbly green-onion pancakes for wrapping it all up---makes everything else seem almost quaint. (See Feasts!)
The toque has got bravado to burn. Even without a pastry chef he fares well, serving buttery madeleines and a fine apple tart. But dessert at Fedora needn't be the end of the meal. If it's your third or fourth visit, Stulman might know you by name---the man loves his regulars. Pull up a stool at the bar: Who knows, that last one for the road might even be on the house.
Eat this: Octopus with sweetbreads, steak tartare, steak sandwich, fried chicken, pork chop for two
Drink this: The cocktails (all $12), featuring house-made bitters, syrups and infused spirits, have a nostalgic bent that fits the storied venue they're served in. The Black Squirrel old-fashioned is a classic potent drink polished up with pecan bitters. Serious cocktailians can finish off the night with a Shackleton, an intense digestif made with Fernet Branca and bourbon.
Sit here: Bar-top dining best fits the spirit of the place, but the big corner tables are much better suited to a full-fledged feast.
Conversation piece: Au Pied de Cochon, the chef's alma mater, may be North America's most famously gluttonous restaurant, best known for adding foie gras to everything. For more food in that vein, check out M. Wells in Queens, where another alumnus is now serving dinner.