Sunday, February 10, 2008

The E.U. in the E.V.

eu2Celest adores the industrial chic/minimalist/white-on-white glamour aesthetic at restaurants such as Falai (which does, in fact, look just like her own apartment), Public, and Stanton Social. I am less enthusiastic, generally, about this “look” for a restaurant, since I really long for the food and feel of a place to trend toward rustic allure—wood instead of metal, candlelight in place of exposed-filament light bulbs, plush banquettes instead of high-backed barstools. Fireplaces are a bonus; open kitchens are a dream. Think PeasantGemmaBobo. These places make me pant for their décor as much as I pant for their signature dishes.

So, back when The E.U. opened up in The East Village, Celest began to rave about how the place looked, even when their rocky start was producing some inconsistent fare. She stuck with the place, and I started hanging out there on occasion too. Now, a couple of years in, they have a brand new chef, Justin Smiliie, the menu has evolved and is continuing to be improved upon, they have become one of my favorite brunches in the city for price and quality, and the service is exceeding even my own, high expectations. And then, there’s that giant wall of jagged, glossy white subway tiles that runs along the wall opposite the bar. It is more Celest’s style than my own, but we both agree it’s a standout design element to rival any of the best-looking restaurants in the city, much less the East Village. It almost makes me want to change my Manhattan dream home from a brownstone on West 10th to a loft on North Moore. Almost.

“Change” describes a lot of what’s been going on at The E.U. recently. I first met the GM, Victoria, at Saxleby Cheese at Essex Market a few weeks ago, when we were both surveying the selection of formaggio. She, of the huge smile and warm manner that reads more “Midwestern Elementary School Principal” than “Manhattan Restaurateur,” apparently enjoys L.E.S. chevre as much as I do. We hit it off right away. Since I hadn’t been in for dinner in awhile (though, again, I go regularly for the weekend brunch, which, unfortunately, no longer features a complimentary glass of Prosecco—Sara is devestated—but at which I love to order the yolky, fried duck egg, served atop buttery buckwheat farina in an individual clay pot, studded with stewed tomatoes and speared by a couple pieces of ultra-crisp bacon: mix it all together and dip the ends of your brioche toast into the whole savory mess; yum!!), when the decision on where to meet a couple of old guy friends from college fell to me recently, I suggested we try out the new chef at The E.U.

Truth be told, they weren’t thrilled with the suggestion, initially. Neither had eaten there before, and both complained that they are surrounded everyday by hoards of annoying Europeans at their jobs in SoHo (one in retail, the other waiting tables), which is inundated these days with Euro and pound sterling-rich folks aghast at how cheap the shopping in New York is for them.

“If I have to hear one more obnoxious-accented, bad-breathed, colored jeans wearing European exclaim, ‘Ze shopping iz so cheeep! Eeet is worth ze plane ride and ze hotel room just for a the Prada!’” Adam complained.

I persuaded them with the promise of artisinal beers and the assurance that we wouldn’t have to wait for a table in the middle of the week, and I was right. Not that the place was empty, but I was able to get a reservation the day of. After Belgium beers at the bar, we took our places at the end of one of the communal tables that had been reserved for us (note: there are both communal and individual tables at The E.U., so if you are not fond of the communal arrangement, be sure to request accordingly) and went for a bottle of earthy French wine, suggested by our Betty Boop-look-alike waitress. Then she brought a plate of grilled octopus, “compliments of the kitchen,” she told us. It was a great surprise, with an excellent texture; the flavors of charcoal and the sweet citrus from the drizzled vinaigrette paired perfectly. In fact, it kicked ass and will be the first thing I order when I return. Then, we all opted for the curried squash soup. It was a knockout selection, especially on a cold February night. The texture was lusciously pureed, and, as if it wasn’t rich enough on its own, the soup was topped with a drippy , cheesy crouton.

We started our second bottle of wine while trying to decide on entrees. Ricky admitted he’s had roast chicken on the brain because of reading my blog!, so he chose that dish, and I was feeling like something light after the creamy soup, so I went with olive oil-poached hake over a chorizo broth. Adam wanted the cassoulet, but they were out of the dish for the evening, so he settled for beef short ribs. All the plates were excellent and we passed them around to one another as we chatted and reminisced about our NYU days and working together at the now defunct bar, Schramann’s. Company and food were both terrific. Finally, Victoria spotted me (maybe because my compatriots were getting loud) and she smiled broadly as she came over to greet us. We raved to her about the food, and she said the chef has been tweaking and refining the menu and that she’s excited about the new ideas they have for the place. I asked her to swear that the fried duck egg from the brunch menu wouldn’t go anywhere, and let her know that the service had been outstanding and the food, fantastic, top to bottom. She said she was pleased to hear all that; a few minutes later, she sent over after-dinner drinks. We dipped biscotti into our Moscatel and finished off a plate of sticky toffee bread pudding and one of Meyer lemon and almond crostata, both served with vanilla gelato.

I thought of Celest when I stood in front of the big, tiled wall, waiting for one of the chic, minimalist restrooms to become available—she always says she wishes that the restrooms actually in Europe were as nice as the ones in this restaurant. Instead she’s reminded me, there, they’re rarely heated or cooled, and inNaples anyway, they mostly have no toilet seats!

The E.U. was much more accommodating, and I left with the boys sated and excited to see how the place will continue to evolve under its new management. When the weather is warm again, they will open the huge glass panels at the front of the restaurant to invite in the fresh air, and the sidewalk espresso bar will once again serve shots out the window, Roman style. But I won’t wait ‘til spring to return; I’m going for brunch next weekend.

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