New York can be a tough, unforgiving place for chef-restaurateurs looking to open their own places. Rents are high, start-up capital is hard to come by (especially these days), and figuring out a way to distinguish yourself from the thousands of restaurants here is tough. Yet some people somehow find the money, locate an affordable space, and, with a big leap of faith, open its doors.
349 East 13th Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n First and Second avenues; map); 212-533-6212
Service: Friendly, accommodating
Setting: Comfy, converted bar
Compare It To: The Little Owl, Market Table
Must-Haves: Crab leek tart, summer bean salad, Low Country shrimp, fried chicken
Cost: $45 for three courses, tax, and tip
The Redhead founders decided to start slowly. Almost two years ago Meg Grace, who was cooking at the Museum of Modern Art, and her two young restaurateur partners, Rob Larcom and Gregg Nelson, took over the lease at a defunct jazz club and bar with the idea that they would eventually open a restaurant. To keep cash flowing, Larcom and Nelson kept their day jobs (at Drew Nieporent's and Danny Meyer's companies, respectively), and kept the place open seven nights a week as a bar. Grace started cooking every Thursday night. People seemed to take a shine to Grace's regional American, Southern-influenced cooking, and then New York Times dining section editor Pete Wells wrote a positive in-brief review that contained a sirenlike line about biscuits good enough to be in a biscuit museum. Eighteen months later a full-blown restaurant was born. Their toe-dipping had evolved into a headlong plunge.
I had heard from quite a few people in the restaurant business and out about the Redhead, so a couple of days after they began serving dinner five nights a week I went down to see what all the buzz (and the biscuits) were about.
I perused the menu at what is only a slightly gussied-up bar searching high and low for those biscuits. They were nowhere to be found. I consoled myself with an order of house-made waffle potato chips ($5) served with a butter-braised onion dip. The chips were super crunchy, thick, and addictive, and the dip was as good as French onion dip could get, but. man, if those chips had been hot out of the fryer, they would have gained entry into the potato chip hall of fame on the first ballot. Bacon peanut brittle ($4) was pretty damn fine (how could it not be?), but I wanted the bacon-to-peanut ratio to be higher. Eggplant flatbread with Flying Pigs Farm sausage ($10) was perfectly fine but failed to take flight. It never became more than the sum of its parts.
Grace turns out to be something of a salad genius. A One-Eyed Caesar Salad ($8), made with perfectly fresh fronds of red and green Romaine lettuce, came with a perfectly realized egg in a hole, or One-Eyed Susan, as it's called on the menu. Crispy capers completed this perfect plate of greens.
A summer bean salad ($9) came with half a medium-boiled egg, a lovely hazelnut-sherry vinaigrette , a crouton, and thick, slightly stringy chunks of salty Smithfield country ham.
Low Country shrimp ($10/$16) is an impossibly rich, absolutely delicious plate of creamy Anson Mills grits, tender and mercifully not overcooked shrimp, and slices of andouille sausage. In a city full of mediocre shrimp-and-grits preparations, Grace's is the only one I have tasted that I regard as a must-have dish.
Almost as good as the shrimp and grits is the crab-and-leek tart ($10). When it arrived at our table, I thought the portion was a little meager, but it was so rich it turned out to be plenty ample. This little tart with its wild mushroom sauce topping delivers a wicked flavor punch.
How could I not order something called Sausage and Pretzel ($8)? The house-made pretzel would have made my top three New York soft pretzel list if it were hot, and the Kreuz Market sausage was too loose and too lean, as it always is.
Grace's buttermilk fried chicken ($15) was crunchy and crisp on the outside and moist and juicy and chickeny on the inside, but, alas, the biscuits had been replaced on the plate by a wedge of delicious lemony cornbread that almost entered the realm of pound cake.
Duck confit ($16) was crisp and ducky, but too much of the duck fat had been rendered in the confiting process, so it was a tad dry. The dirty rice cooked like a risotto that came with the confit was an inspired accompaniment. Grace takes dirty rice to another level without tarting it up.
The Redhead burger ($9) coulda been a contender. The ground beef had plenty of fat, and Neuske's bacon elevates any burger it's put on, but the too-thick bun needs to be replaced.
Corn and chantarelle ravioli ($15) seemed like an obligatory nod to those people who insist that every menu in New York have at least one pasta item.
A salted-caramel Ho Ho ($6) is just that, a house-made chocolate roulade with salted caramel filling. One bite and you'll swear off the Hostess variety forever.
A warm berry bread pudding ($6) came with ultracreamy but not too-sweet Greek yogurt ice cream.
A roasted plum cake ($6) was well-executed, but not very exciting.
So what do I think about the Redhead? Gentle prices, food made by someone who clearly has great passion for what she does, served in an unpretentious, cozy environment by people who love what they do. Sounds like a successful formula. I only wish the Redhead were in my neighborhood, so that when Grace smoothes out the kinks in what is a wonderfully appealing menu, I could become a regular without taking two subways to get there.
And about those museum-quality biscuits? Larcom insists they'll be back when the weather gets cooler. I only hope that can be construed as a biscuit commitment.