About a month after opening, Justine’s on Hudson is the uncommon great new restaurant where you can actually get a reservation, with one irksome quirk. Book the West Village wine bistro, and you could land at the smattering of tables in its small, buffed-to-lovely dining room, or at the even tighter bar. They don’t distinguish online the way many places have begun in recent years, delineating patio, indoor or counter arrangements.
There are plenty of locations and situations where I prefer to sit at the bar. My most regular brunch spot. Almost any hotel. And a solo steak and martini at something supposedly reclaimed sounds rather nice at the moment. But when I’ve planned in advance, especially for work, I expect, more or less, to be seated in a chair. Among the litany of reasons you can’t just stick somebody on a stool, the most superficial is that they’re there under an assumed name for review purposes and need to meet certain conditions. But nobody should have to explain that to fulfill this otherwise very reasonable expectation.
On a recent visit, it only took a few minutes to get rearranged on the velvety banquette that runs along one wall. Cool shades of slate, silver, beige and lacquered black surround. It’s all a little canonical Sex and the City, or at least an alternate reality version of the seminal show that didn’t give a whole generation and-a-half the wrong idea about both NYC (and journalism). It comes by its polish casually and seems orchestrated to make evenings feel easy, once you’re settled.
Waiting wine glasses are thin and light and feel expensive, inviting pointed, manicured fingernail pings. Soon, they’re filled with perhaps the most studied selections in town: the eponymous owner, Justine Rosenthal, tapped her dad, industry-famous wine merchant Neal, to curate the bottles and pours. Nine of the latter are presently available, including the wonderful 2012 Lucien Crochet Sancerre rouge cuvée prestige, ($35/4 ounces) a harder-to-find red, decanted from a magnum with relaxed pomp.
Chef Jeanne Jordan—previously chef de cuisine at the now-closed Mas (Farmhouse) nearby—aims to express French and Filipino influences on a menu that covers a decent amount of ground in relatively few lines. There’s some everyday drama here, too, after the delivery of that increasing anomaly, complimentary bread—a solid sourdough, in this case.
The smoked crab and whitefish salad ($30) arrives under a whole, plate-obscuring coconut rice cracker, light and airy but able to carry the mild mix beneath. Unveiled, the minced seafood is bright with a garland of dainty yellow arugula flowers that add a bit of zip familiar from the greens from whence they came. It isn’t cheap, and nothing here is, but it’s fairly portioned, an eyeball measure that might match what often fills a split, buttered hotdog bun.
Beef tartare ($28) is partly covered, too, peaking beneath another whole house-made cracker. Zabuton (the fatty chuck cut sometimes seen as Denver) steak trimmings are fresh, bright and as satisfyingly choppy as hoped for. A little lower and wider than a hockey puck, it’s showered with a cleverly texture-juxtaposing, finely crushed peanut pistou. These two starters together are an excellent introduction to the kitchen and a fun little choose-your-own surf and turf.
Mains also span land and sea, risotto with spring vegetables and fish like fluke or wild striped bass among them. Lamb ($56), a trio from the rack, demonstrates control and confidence behind the burner, each piece slow-roasted to rose, tender and juicy toward its center, if a little chewier at the edges. Its best bites are nearly buttery and lightly grassy, with a dark, viscous bay leaf sauce that brings more depth to the dish.
Justine’s on Hudson’s American Wagyu hanger steak ($48) the best of any kind I’ve had at a new restaurant this year. It’s marinated in wasabi and red wine, prepared to a marvelous medium rare down to a fraction of the degree, and finished with a kiss of char. Sliced before plating, it’s topped with a peppy sikil pak, the sauce’s pepitas verdant and vibrant with epazote’s herbaceous, acidic kick. It’s plated with one of the best items of the night, a tidy bouquet of garlicky mustard greens. It’s just the kind of thing I’d return for, maybe even alone some early summer night, swapping my typical martini for one of those brilliantly selected reds—if they eventually stop sweeping reservations to the bar.
The Vibe: Casually polished, lush and highly hospitable.
The Food: One of the best new steaks in NYC among French and Filipino-influenced chicken, fish, lamb and vegetarian mains, plus great steak tartare and crab and whitefish salad to start.
The Drinks: Studiously-curated wine by the bottle or $13-$35 glass, with most hovering around $20.
Justine’s on Hudson is located at 518 Hudson Street. It is open Tuesday-Saturday from 5pm-10:30pm.