Sometimes, small-plates restaurants, attempting to unshackle diners from the tyranny of a three-course dinner, end up creating an even more oppressive regime of unsatisfying meals and inflated bills. That, in short, is the problem with Recette, an ambitious West Village newcomer that replaces appetizers and entres with too-small plates.
This free-form approach to dinner—designed, as the restaurant’s website informs, “so that diners can order just as they please”—might make more sense if the servings weren’t just three or four bites each, and the winners among them few and far between. With no hearty fillers among the dozen or so plates—an haute burger perhaps, or a big bowl of pasta—instead of having a liberated dining experience, you end up feeling coerced into an exorbitant, multicourse meal. On a recent evening we managed to spend nearly $300 on dinner for three, without overordering or blowing a bundle on wine. And though we sampled most of the menu, there was still plenty of room for dessert.
The restaurant, the solo debut of former Gordon Ramsay understudy Jesse Schenker, replaced neighborhood mainstay Jarnac, a cozy French bistro that for ten years had been hidden behind lush-curtained windows. The new owners have stripped away the fabric buffer—presumably to make the place more inviting. In the process they’ve transformed the intimate space—minimally appointed with framed mirrors and a few floral still lifes—into an echo chamber, with some of the most deafening acoustics in town.
At its best, Schenker’s cuisine deserves a more sedate setting. His most impressive dishes show off a refined palate and a mastery of classic technique. An ocean trout fillet, slow cooked in olive oil to a gorgeous silky consistency, arrives bathed in a rich, buttery shellfish emulsion. Plump sea scallops, in a saffron-laced coconut broth, are expertly seared with a caramel char on the edges. A whole flattened sweetbread, topped with escarole, capers, brown butter and lemon, and lightly fried like veal scaloppine, is wondrously crisp on the outside and tender within. Any of these dishes would make a fine start to a traditional meal—or a decent main course if you could, like a shot of whiskey, order a double—but the other menu options rarely live up to the same standards. Cool duck breast slices, rolled around chicken liver mousse, combine to become livery cold-cut cigars. Razor clams, fried like traditional clam strips, are bland and limp, with an overpowering side of hot chili compote. More substantial proteins don’t fare much better. A visually striking pork belly roulade, shellacked in sherry vinegar-caramel, is unfortunately dry and stringy inside. Shingled slices of beef strip, with brussels sprouts and an astringent homemade steak sauce, are also tough and chewy.
Desserts—pastry chef Christina Lee is a young whiz, with a stint at Per Se on her rsum—turn out to be the most compelling reason to dine here. Lee’s deconstructed s’more is a delicious, painterly spin on the campfire classic, featuring graham-cracker ice cream with abstract smears of toasted marshmallow cream and cayenne-infused milk-chocolate ganache. That dessert, or a supermoist olive oil and almond cake, would make a fine follow-up to the best savory stuff on the menu, if only there were enough of it to constitute a meal.
Drink this: The wine list features both extravagant bottles and more affordable bargains. A big and bold San Lorenzo Chianti Classico is a steal at $30.
Eat this: Ocean trout with shellfish emulsion, sea scallops with coconut broth, crispy sweetbread, deconstructed s’more
Sit here: With too many seats squeezed into an already small space, the most central tables are also the most frequently jostled. Request a spot near the window, away from the high-traffic waitstaff lanes.
Conversation piece: Recette’s 27-year-old chef, Jesse Schenker, began working on the restaurant’s menu and concept last year, when he launched a Harlem-based catering company under the same name.