Joseph Leonard for Lunch: Next Stop, Yummyville?
170 Waverly Place, New York NY 10014 (at Christopher; map); 646-429-8383; josephleonard.com
Service: Casual, enthusiastic, attentive
Setting: A tiny space that looks like your favorite eccentric uncle's studio apartment
Compare It To: Little Owl, Bouchon Bakery
Must-Haves: House-made pastrami, hamburger, hash browns, brussels sprouts, salted caramel pudding, carrot cake
Cost: $20 for a burger, fries, drink, tax, and tip
Adam Kuban and I were looking for a suitable spot in the Village to have lunch with our Pieman's Craft co-stars Anthony Mangieri and Mathieu Palombino. Both Mangieri and Palombino are discerning serious eaters, so I was feeling the pressure that comes with finding just the right spot. I had read a fair amount about the dinner menu at new West Village spot Joseph Leonard, but no one had written anything about the newly inaugurated lunch menu.
I knew that former Bouchon Bakery chef de cuisine Jim McDuffee was in charge of the kitchen at Joseph Leonard, so I thought the man would have lunch chops to burn.
When we walked into Joseph Leonard we were confronted by a blackboard sign:
"Open for lunch. Get your stretch pants ready for a one-way trip to Yummyville."
With a sign like that, I thought to myself, this food had better be good. Either that or Joseph Leonard owner Gabriel Stulman needs to take a copywriting course at the School of Visual Arts. So would the next stop on the Serious Eats train be Yummyville or Palookaville? The four of us were going to find out.
In the name of proper lunchtime research we ordered just about every starter, starting with the just ducky duck rillettes ($10), served with a mini-crock of dijon mustard and slices of toasted country bread.
The salt cod brandade ($8), which came with baguette chips, curry oil, and picquillo-pepper marmalade, was more creamy than salty (thank you, potatoes), which is just how I like my brandade.
Roasted brussels sprouts ($7) were irresistably nutty and enlivened by plenty of sriracha.
The warm bean salad ($9) had white beans, butter beans, haricots vert, lentils, and tapenade in a lemony vinaigrette. The beans were the right blend of firm and creamy, though I wish the vinaigrette were a little zingier.
Autumn stuffing was so buttery and bacon-y I could easily see it supplanting the Silver Palate's apple, cornbread, sausage, and pecan on my Thanksgiving table.
Corn soup was smooth and sweet (from the corn and a few caramelized onions thrown in at the last moment), with a few fried fingerling chips adding just a little crunch. (Chips can only be so crunchy once they hit the soup).
The frisée salad ($10) came with a perfect sunny-side up egg atop a slice of brioche toast, plenty of bacon, and a fine red wine vinaigrette.
Great hash browns are as rare in this town as a one bedroom rent-controlled apartment, but McDuffee's are great, crisp, and golden-brown on the outside and tender and moist on the inside. These are hash brown Hall of Fame material.
The broccoli cheddar quiche ($12) is by way of Keller. It's perfectly OK, but not all that flavorful, and it doesn't have that luxuriant rich quality of Keller's.
The pastrami sandwich ($14) is really a corned beef sandwich (it's brined and cured, not smoked) enlivened by pastrami spices. A whole brisket is brined for three days in a spice mixture of mustard seed, juniper, black pepper, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf. When it comes out of the brine it's coated with a pastrami-like seasoning mixture of juniper, black pepper, and coriander. It's then slow-roasted at 250 degrees for up to six hours. No matter what you call it, this is a superb pastrami sandwich. The meat is almost decadently rich, perfectly marbled, and so full of flavor I didn't even miss the smoke. It comes with terrific half-sour pickles and even better house-made potato chips.
A ham and cheese sandwich on a crisp Tomcat Bakery baguette benefited greatly from thin slices of Madrange ham and the nutty comté cheese McDuffee pairs with it.
I loved McDuffee's sliders, which were occasionally on the menu at Bouchon Bakery, and I'm happy to report that they might be even better as a full-sized burger ($12). The tomato marmalade, arugula, and ricotta toppings may make it sound like just another fancy-pants burgers, but that is so not true. McDuffee doesn't gild the lily. He takes a hunk of freshly ground nondesigner 80-20 choice sirloin that's pan-roasted and then finished in the salamander. If they just replaced the brioche bun with a toasted potato bun, all would be right in the world. Oh yeah, the thickish fries are perfectly fried and properly salty.
Salted caramel pudding is a tasty first cousin to butterscotch.
Carrot cake, usually a humdrum dessert, here is moist and tender and flavorful, with a properly modest amount of not-too-sweet cream cheese icing wasn't even cloyingly sweet. Why carrot cake? Populist McDuffee says that "if you asked ten people for a list of their favorite three desserts, at least eight of them would put carrot cake in the mix."
Warm brownies were, well, warm, so how bad can they be? McDuffee's are blessedly not too sweet and very chocolatey, though the powdered sugar on top was unnecessary.
Joseph Leonard may be a trendy hot spot at dinner, but at lunch it's a neighborly and downright tranquil place. The only noise our fellow diners heard from our table, other than the buzz of animated, engaged conversation about pizza, were moans of pleasure from the four of us.
Anthony Mangieri, a tough man to please under any circumstances, said it best: "This is some of the best food I've had in this town in... I don't know how long." Anthony knows pizza, and it turns out he knows burgers, hash browns, and pastrami as well.