The tables at Raf’s are too close together. Maybe not all of them, but certainly the banquette stretch on the pretty restaurant’s long west wall leading to the elegantly framed, peacefully coordinated, open kitchen. The comparatively truncated space is nearly imperceptible, almost negligible until everybody starts to remark. That side of the dining room seems scored with a chorus of polite “pardon mes,” as the staff admirably navigates throughout. The tight fit that might not be as noticeable someplace else is magnified at Raf’s, which is so effortfully polished that the sporadic smudge is amplified.
Intended to evoke both European-style neighborhood spots and the continent’s grand cafés, with more granular influences from Italy and France, Raf’s is . . . sure, why not. It’s a glowy addition to Noho, just across East Houston from its predecessor, The Musket Room. The newcomer, which opened in March, could practically have sprung fully formed from any of the area’s stealth-wealthiest corners, with the reservation-filling following to match. It took a few tries before I could squeeze in.
The address was Parisi Bakery for 47 years until 2021, and Raf’s has its own bread preparations to rival any other. That the $14 baskets become compulsory depending on appetizer selection is an increasingly common but irksome cost of dining out in recent years. The listed warm fresh ricotta, for example, which sounds interesting with the addition of long hot peppers that ultimately bring nothing, needs a vehicle, which turns the little $8 lark into a $22 starter, for the apparent few keeping track.
Skip the bland bit of cheese, but keep the peak-form focaccia, sourdough and milk buns, whose accompanying fancy butter is plenty complimentary, anyway. The trio’s a treat with that alone and another useful platform for the much better, nicely-portioned, buoyant beef tartare with anchovy, mint and a shower of aged Parm ($24.) It comes in handy again for the plump, ideally textured escargot’s too-mild in-shell herb bath, livening up the verdant blend as best it can.
Wood-fired mains from the hearth are large, too and could be shared to mix and match with a house-made pasta like the otherwise fine for one mafaldine with lamb ragu ($29). The size of the whole dorade, for example, would be respectable in any gone fishin’ snapshot, with a proficiently fork-flaky interior.
The half-chicken is the choice to beat, attracting long glances from those (very) neighboring tables. The impressively plated poultry’s parts are each triumphantly finished to their uniquely required cooking times and temperatures for a bird that soars alongside dainty asparagus spears and atop jus-soaked slabs of sourdough, at once rich, rustic and decadent. There might even be plenty to take home, where it’s still wonderful the next day in the relative sprawl of your own kitchen, improvised coffee-table-dining-room, or fire escape.
The Vibe: Tightly packed and a little stuffy between white tablecloths, though likely to relax over the course of what will probably be a long, successful run.
The Food: Fantastic bread with sensational butter, great beef-tartare, serviceable (though photogenic) escargots, a few house-made pastas and one impressive roast chicken.
The Drinks: Wine and a cocktail menu better swapped with classics.
Raf’s is located at 290 Elizabeth Street. It opens for dinner at 5pm Tuesday-Sunday.