Fedora: A Historic Space Gets a New Hat (and an Awesome Menu)
239 West 4th Street, New York NY 10014 (b/n West 10th and Charles; map); 646-449-9336; fedoranyc.com
Service: Unfailingly upbeat
Setting: Beautifully shined-up but worn in, half-level down from the street
Must haves: Crispy Pig's Head, Cauliflower Soup, Chicken for Two, Sweetbreads and Octopus
Compare It To: Joseph Leonard
Cost: $9-15 starters, $20-28 mains
If there's one man who seems to have the West Village neighborhood restaurant down, it's Gabriel Stulman. His first restaurant, the thirty-seat Little Owl, opened in 2006 and won instant crowds and affection for its burger and its meatball sliders and its irrepressible charm; years later, it can still be tough to score a table. Market Table followed, a larger project in a larger space; after Stulman left both restaurants, he opened Joseph Leonard in 2009. And now, within the last few months, he's not only brought back that restaurant after a crippling fire, but opened two new ones: Jeffrey's Grocery, a casual restaurant-luncheonette-oyster bar, and Fedora, the relaunch of a nearly century-old West Village landmark. (One wonders when he sleeps.)
Threads link all of Stulman's restaurants, past and present, spread over only a few square blocks—cheery, casual service; close quarters; menus that manage to read both as comfort food and something more exciting, dishes that appeal at a very gut level. And it's for that last reason we'd send you to Fedora.
Stulman recruited Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, previously a sous chef at the acclaimed Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, to run Fedora's kitchen. As you might expect from a graduate of a restaurant famed for putting foie gras on poutine, the menu Brunet-Benkritly created relies heavily on offal and indulgence. (Tripe, pig's head, beef tongue, and sweetbreads all make an appearance.) And the playfulness of a chef who puts a sandwich on a reasonably refined dinner menu seems best to capture the energy of Fedora—dramatic, but fun-loving at heart.
The hassles of dining at Fedora are what you'd expect from any other young West Village restaurant: a standing-room-only atmosphere and soundtrack of rock music and loud conversations. It's the kind of place where Sifton might knock off a star for their no-reservations policy and deem it inappropriate for older diners. He'd be right: You can expect to be jostled a bit throughout the night, albeit in a "Relax, everybody's having a good time" kind of way. It's an apt metaphor for the food, which is exuberantly busy, but seems to come together without a hitch.
Dishes like Quail and Clams ($14) seem almost jerry-rigged in their unconventional pairings—the culinary equivalent of inviting the chess club and the football team to the same party—but a buttery lemon broth deftly tempers the briny bitterness of the cockles. Our favorite appetizer is the Crispy Pig's Head ($12): crunchy nuggets of breaded and fried pig's head tossed with a bright salad of peppery greens and a sauce gribiche made with hard boiled eggs heavily laced with capers and pickles. It's a really fun dish to eat.
With no reservations accepted (except for large parties, day-of), you may well end up sitting at the bar—not a bad place to be when bar man (and partner) Brian Bartels pushes a cocktail menu your way. It reads as classics-get-creative, spirit-forward drinks with eyebrow-raising twists, though in reality they're a little less gutsy than they appear.
In the Black Squirrel Old Fashioned ($12) with "Buffalo Trace bourbon, Citrus, Maple Wash and House Pecan Bitters" the maple comes across mostly as just sweet, the pecan bitters as just bitter, resulting in something that tastes like a good Old Fashioned more than a re-thought version of one. Ditto the Mr. Graves Pendleton ($12), with Elijah Craig bourbon and "Clove BBQ Syrup," which, Bartels told us, was simple syrup mixed with clove and the same spice blend as the spiced nuts on their late-night menu. It's smooth and drinkable but only the clove really stands out amongst the spices.
Food prices may read steep, but turn out to be a value once you see the portion sizes. A chioggia beet salad ($14) simply dressed and paired with arugula, shavings of barnyardy ricotta salata, and spicy-sweet candied pecans could easily serve as an app for two. The ricotta-beet-nut pairing may be trite, but the salad was exceptionally well put together. An intense cream of cauliflower soup ($9) with a near-custardlike texture could have been a meal in itself. Egg yolk, buttery croutons, and fat lardons of bacon (delicious if chewy) mean that, for some, a few bites may be all you can handle.
Eggs show up again with an egg in a hole ($14), listed with "tripe ragoût and cheddar." The slim cuts of tripe in a bright, simple tomato sauce just cover the egg toast, which really steals the show—a thick slice of crusty bread with a just-set egg in the middle and a melty blanket of cheddar, so that with one cut through the center, yolk and cheese spill all over the plate. The cod fritters ($9), which earn their own special box on the menu, were the most plain, and least succesful appetizer we tried—slightly tough and dry, though we still had no trouble finishing them.
The only major problem that emerged at Fedora was the menu—what it communicated and what it didn't. It reads brussels sprouts with grilled bread and parmigiano ($8) but what comes to the table is an open-faced sandwich with slivers of brussels sprouts under parmesan and smoked paprika on toasted ciabatta. As a dish itself, it's kind of inspired, but we ordered it expecting a vegetable side, not a bruschetta. The other confusing bit: given that the bread comes from Sullivan Street Bakery—known for their impossibly pillowy crumb—we were frankly shocked at how tough it was.
One meal with bad bread could have been a fluke, but it happened to us twice on non-consecutive days, making us wonder if there's a problem with how it's stored or reheated. It hampered an otherwise excellent warm beef sandwich ($20), thin strips of juicy hanger steak with horseradish aioli and sriracha and shoestring fries piled right in.
The breadless entrées pick back up where the appetizers leave off, with exotic pairings like crisp, creamy sweetbreads served with charred octopus tentacles ($28) and roasted baby romaine lettuce or a whole, on-the-bone skate wing ($25) served with a split veal bone full of rich, gelatinous marrow. It's wild surf & turf reminiscent of dishes at Michael Psilakis' Upper West Side Fish Tag, though the menu here is much more focused.
The menu also offers a couple of "dishes for two," though in reality, they could easily feed three or four. It's hard not to smile when the waiter deposits an entire bronzed, slightly charred roasted chicken ($59)—crispy feet and all—at your table. We're told that the preparation is still being tweaked, but it's hard to imagine the creamy polenta, roasted mushrooms, and panko-coated deep-fried soft boiled eggs (!) replaced with anything that would lend the dish the same level of irrepressible joy. Then again, Brunet-Benkritly seems to have a knack for pulling off the improbable.
A series of relatively tame desserts serve as a sound anchor for the wild meal. A tall chocolate cake ($10)—delivered, cutely, with shots of cold milk—was just about everything one would want in a classic slice, three layers of moist chocolatey cake bound with a rich icing that stopped short of too sweet. Comforting in a Betty Crocker way, but far more delicious. In a similar vein was an apple crumble pie ($10), with a single flaky bottom crust, perfectly tender apples, and a crumble that, like other moments of the meal, was so buttery it was a little hard to believe.
On a recent weeknight, Fedora grew ever livelier as the hour approached midnight and a blizzard raged outside. An older man muscled the door open, brushed the snow off his hat, and wound through tipsy twenty-somethings and chatty waitstaff to a seat at the bar. He pulled out a worn copy of The Iliad and sipped on a Fernet, neat, as the din mounted around him. It was hard not to wonder why he'd found his way there.
"Fedora was my wife's godmother," he told the bartender, of the woman who had owned the restaurant for decades before Stulman and Brunet-Benkritly took it over. "She used to come here every Sunday when she was a girl. I've been coming here for more years than I can count."
That he still stops by says something about Fedora—though a brand-new restaurant, it feels lived-in, comfortably aged, not designed to feel aged, as are so many restaurants these days. It's heartening to find a place that manages to appropriate the legacy of its predecessor while neither neglecting its history nor seeming a stale homage. It still feels like a neighborhood restaurant—though one that's worth a journey from any neighborhood.