510 West 52nd Street, New York NY 10019 (b/n 10th and 11th Aves.; map); 212-247-9191; ardesia-ny.com
Service: Friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable
Setting: A jewel-like box lobby of a new-ish building
Must haves: Pretzels, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Pastrami Sandwich, Charcuterie
Cost: $3-14 small plates
LIke a lot of people in and outside the restaurant business, Mandy Oser, Eric Ripert's Director of Strategic Partnerships at Le Bernardin, has long harbored ambitions of owning her own place—specifically, a wine bar with a limited menu of small plates. Oser knew that Ripert himself wouldn't devise the menu, though he did bless Ardesia. So Oser put the word out that she was looking for a chef. The first person that cooked for her was Amorette Casaus, who had worked with Gray Kunz and at El Quinto Pino—and Casaus blew her away.
I'd read about Casaus' charcuterie and her housemade soft pretzels (which I always have a soft spot for), and her own pastrami, yet somehow I have never made it over to Ardesia until recently. What I found was mostly so delicious I am kicking myself that I hadn't made my way there earlier. A wine bar with distinctive, carefully crafted food is a fairly rare specimen in this town, and that's just what Ardesia is. If I could walk to it from my apartment, I would be there once or twice a week. It's an adult place that's contemporary without seeming suffocatingly hip.
Casaus makes her own charcuterie (3 for $14), one of the highlights of the menu; though that laudable goal can often end in disaster, she pulls it off. The mortadella is porky, tender, almost custard-like; the pancetta is cured and then air-dried for six weeks (it just calls out for PLT treatment come summer); and even her cocktail sausages were juicy and bursting with flavor. How many chefs do you know that make their own cocktail sausages? What a cool idea.
A quail egg toast ($9) makes use of that house-cured pancetta; with fried quail egg and hollandaise, it's a tiny, well-played riff on eggs benedict. Salt cod croquettes ($5), if a little pricey at two small orbs to an order, were perfect: well-seasoned, crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside.
Creamy house-made goat milk ricotta, velvety chicken liver mousse, and sweet kabocha squash make up three ideal toppings for the slate of three crostini ($7). Tender shrimp on the garlic shrimp skewer ($7) were as garlicky as I could've hoped for. The only real miss was an artichoke and crab dip ($13); served with toasted Amy's Bread, it was soupy, uninteresting, and overpriced. Better were the meatier dishes: a gorgeously seared flank steak ($11) with a vibrant salsa verde; a plump weisswurst ($9) with house-made sauerkraut studded with juniper berries. (I couldn't help thinking that either one would make a fine sandwich.)
The arugula salad ($7), made with Pecorino Romano and a lemon vinaigrette, won't change your life, and neither will the more substantial beet salad ($9), which comes with pomegranate seeds, walnuts, and fresh goat cheese in a tarragon vinaigrette. What are life-changing are the addictively crunchy bites of roasted cauliflower ($7), enlivened by garlic, lemon, and a superior gremolata. Equally memorable were the caramelized brussels sprouts ($8) flavored with lime and mint and topped fried shallots. They're similar to a version of David Chang's, one could notice, but the best chefs in town take ideas from great cooks and make them their own.
I'm a sucker for soft pretzels ($6), particularly when they're yeasty, crunchy on the outside, and tender on the inside, like these. The Dijon mustard and cheese dipping sauces are barely needed but appreciated just the same. The pretzels are right at home alongside what might be the most dainty pastrami sandwich ($12) in the city—a grilled sandwich pressed on a mini-baguette, the meat actually smoked at Brooklyn's Char No. 4, with caramelized Vidalia onions and cameo apple. Think of it as the perfect pastrami tea sandwich. (Albeit a crusty one.)
What's called a duck banh mi ($14) does have many elements of the basic Vietnamese sandwich: picked daikon and carrot, cilantro, pate (here, spicy duck paté). Duck pancetta and sriracha aioli make an appearance, too. It's a fresh sandwich, but also rich and salty with the pancetta—well balanced and delicious. Slightly less successful was the "Cuban" ($14)—you'd think the somewhat classic sandwich (braised pork, pickled vegetables, swiss cheese) would be enlivened by the addition of blood sausage (morcilla), but it needed a jolt of mojo flavor.
A limited selection of desserts (all $5) are all well-executed if not revelatory. An ice cream sandwich comes with housemade ginger ice cream between two thin slices of homemade chocolate cake; it's tasty, but more irresistible are the s'mores. Very few of us can resist them on camping trips or in restaurants, and here they come on homemade cinnamon graham crackers with toasted marshmallows and a not very sweet chocolate sauce. And cookies, baked to order, are warm, gooey, and satisfying.
Imaginative and well thought out small plates, interesting wines by the glass, and a chill, comfortable environment—Ardesia is the work of a restaurateur and chef team with excellent taste and good judgment. The food and wine are well-cured and well-curated, and so is the whole experience. It's a place for adults of any age to truly enjoy themselves.