Cornelia Street in the West Village has been a culinary destination across its single block for decades. When I worked at its titular café toward the end of its last golden age, and Lady Gaga likely did not, the Italian restaurant Pó, farm-to-table Home and Pearl Oyster Bar each shone between West 4th and Bleecker. Those are all closed, with uniquely uniform eulogies to match.
In the interim, and the inopportune thrust of the pandemic, highly-regarded chef Simone Tong followed her eponymous noodle shop with a fantastic new-American-Chinese spot, Silver Apricot, in the former house of Home, where sommelier Emmeline Zhao is partner. And, last month, Zhao expanded next door with fantastic Figure Eight in the previous Pearl space, with Calvin Hwang, previously of Michelin-starred Saga, Crown Shy and Vestry, as executive chef.
Figure Eight, which "celebrates the culture and culinary richness of the lower Atlantic coast through a Chinese-American lens,” has redone its previous occupant’s sandy color palette to cooling gray and blue. In addition to the enduring exposed brick also throughout, the bar’s still on the left and the couple dozen tight-squeeze seats occupy the narrow area on the right. Drinks come out quickly at one or to the other, including the Pollinator ($19), its pleasantly pillowy layer of foam crowning vodka, yuzu and elderflower, and the gin martini with a twist (~$23), which arrives with a sidecar that nearly doubles its volume and speaks to Figure Eight’s confidence and hospitality.
Likewise, a seafood tower is always a fête. Ever inviting effusion only equaled by the likes of trompe-l’œil cakes and Champagne cascades, seafood towers are shorthand for “we’ve made it, baby,” even when baby is still on the way. Figure Eight’s ($49 per person), is a triumph. Marveling, recently, and wondering how its lobster is the best I’ve ever tasted, an answer: sourced from the coast of Nova Scotia, the tail is steamed for six minutes to atypical tenderness and brushed with preserved lemon brown butter. The texture and near-sweetness achieved are unparalleled. The top tier’s pair of stone crab claws are treated more-or-less the same, but with a longer cook-time for equally ideal effect, and the jumbo shrimp are beyond reproach. Tumble down to level one and delightful jalapeño-pickled mussels, scallop crudo topped with bright roe, Shanghainese smoked fish salad with fried saltines, and beautifully arranged razor clams, thinly sliced and dressed with celtuce, daikon and vegetarian semi-dried-tomato and shiitake XO, regally await.
The seafood tower is Figure Eight’s don’t skip, can’t-miss, big hit: a new standard in its class. Its skate ($26) is also essential eating. The mild fish is brined in seasoned buttermilk overnight, dredged in a blend of rice flour and all-purpose, fried and doused with pork lard chili crisp for a deep, dynamite crunch and brilliant balancing act with its daintier interior. It’s served with ranch, pickles and an airy, flaky sesame biscuit.
The ribs, too, land exactly on what this focused kitchen wants to do. Here, the pork is coated with salt, sugar, MSG and five-spice that amplifies the barbecued swine’s rich smokiness with a finish easily liberated from the bone.
Those erstwhile Cornelia Street locales were as beloved as any in New York City, each with their own off days, perfectly orchestrated evenings and regulars, some of whom might have been a little justifiably bitter when their favorite dropped the check for the last time. When that happens, and it does a lot if you’re lucky to live a life of restaurants and bars, the best you can really hope for, after the sting subsides, is that the inevitable newcomer will be a good steward of the place. And not a bank. Figure Eight is as excellent a next act for its storied address as any can hope for.
The Vibe: Casually polished and as assured as if it had been there for years. The table arrangements are a bit tight and conversations carry.
The Food: A sensational seafood tower that’s inked in New York City’s big book of essential eating, excellent hot fried skate and pork ribs.
The Drinks: Splendid cocktails, plus sake, wine and beer.
Figure Eight is located at 18 Cornelia Street. It is open Tuesday-Saturday from 5:30pm-midnight.