Library at the Public
425 Lafayette Street, New York NY 10003 (at Astor Place; map); 212-539-8777; thelibraryatthepublic.com/menu
Setting: Loungey, comfortable
Must-Haves: Calamari, shrimp tacos, seafood salad
Cost: Most appetizers in the teens, entrées in the $20s
Grade: Recommended for your pre-Public Theater dinner
My expectations for a pre-theater restaurant are not particularly high. It's got to be near the theater in question, of course. It's got to be a comfortable place, where my party and I will be well taken care of. And it's got to be a crowd-pleaser. If you're meeting someone for dinner and a show, odds are the focus is on the show; this might not be the time to get frog's legs at Zabb Elee, and it's definitely not the time to wait in line at Mission Chinese. Straightforward, classy, and convenient: that's what I'm looking for.
By all these accounts, The Library at the Public is a success.
The Public Theater on Lafayette has long been the home of Joe's Pub, but last year Andrew Carmellini and Luke Ostrom (Locanda Verde, The Dutch) joined with the Joe's Pub Partners (Josh Pickard, Paul Salmon, Kevin Abbott, Serge Becker)—not only revamping Joe's Pub itself, but adding a full-service restaurant and cocktail lounge, The Library, upstairs. The menu is the work of Carmellini with the Public's chef, Michael Oliver (formerly of Locanda Verde); largely similar menus are served at Joe's Pub and The Library. Our visits to the latter gave us plenty of reasons to return: Its low-lit, loungey dining room; its menu spanning well-executed American-esque classics, memorably good calamari and crab rolls; its excellent cocktails.
It's more-or-less expected that new restaurants have serious cocktails these days, but the Library's were good enough that I'd return just for a drink. I loved the Capitulation #3 ($14), a stirred drink of Plymouth gin and Dolin Blanc that made use of Riesling and Salers gentiane—the effect being something like a Vesper, the wine an elusive accent rather than a dominant component. At least as boozy: the Oriental ($14) with a dominant pour of Old Overholt rye, Combier, Dolin sweet vermouth, and lime. On the lighter side, I loved the very sippable Jersey lightning sling ($14), with Laird's applejack, lemon, and soda, with a nuttiness from housemade orgeat, a little maraschino, and bitters to finish.
Some of the best dishes are straightforward ideas done well, like the pickle plate ($11), not a bunch of vegetables fished out of the same brine, but treated on their own: caraway carrots, ginger turnips, turmeric cauliflower, garlicky yellow wax beans, and haricots verts. The hard-boiled eggs, pickled in beet brine, were a particularly nice touch. Tacos as appetizers are done poorly in many NYC restaurants that don't specialize in them, but ruby red shrimp tacos ($12) with Cotija cheese, avocado crema, pickled jalapeños, and huitlacoche along with a salsa verde are beautifully composed four-biters on tender, pliant corn tortillas; if there were twice as many on the plate, I'd order this as a main.
In fact, all of the seafood appetizers are worth an order: the elegant seafood salad ($15) with citrus and fennel; one of the best versions of calamari ($14) I've had of late, calamari fried crisp and greaseless with shishito peppers and a compellingly spicy chipotle sauce. Peekytoe crab rolls ($10) are tiny sandwiches (thanks to the kitchen for not calling them sliders), buttery brioche buns with crab meat, treated simply in lemon, mayo, chives, and a sparing amount of Tabasco. Like a good lobster roll, the flavor's all crab with a few smart accents, not a crab salad that loses the seafood itself.
This is a restaurant where I could envision myself grabbing a beer and a burger, but I'm not sure I'd fork over $17 for this burger again; unfortunately, it left an impression mainly of sorrow that a decent burger now goes for nearly twenty dollars in New York. Don't get me wrong, it's juicy enough, well-seasoned, topped smartly with cheddar and caramelized onions and applewood-smoked bacon. Great fries. But it's not a burger to make you stand up and take notice. I understand why I'm paying $18 over at The Dutch, another Carmellini spot, for a burger rich and funky from dry aged beef trimmings; that burger was the highlight of a meal, enough to have me coming back just to experience it again. That's what I want from a burger that crosses north of $15.
But if you want a burger, it's there, as with the rest of the entrées, crowd-pleasing and well-executed: Catskill mountain trout ($24) with lentils and butternut squash; grilled lamb chops ($27) gone Mediterranean with harissa and mint, and a couscous salad with Marcona almonds and oven-dried grapes. The rigatoni ($19) in tomato sauce may sound less compelling, but with broccoli rabe, nubs of pork sausage, and chickpeas, it's as worthy of attention as anything else on the menu.
Reasons I'd go back: For a post-show glass of wine and shrimp tacos with a friend; to meet my parents for a pre-show dinner; for a cocktail in this not-quite-East Village stretch of the neighborhood. For just a straight-up good meal—well, I'd choose The Dutch or Locanda any day. But that's all right. It's a big city; there's room for restaurants that fit a very specific purpose. And The Library does that well indeed.