5 King Street, New York NY 10012 (at Sixth Avenue; map); 212-235-7133; charliebirdnyc.com
Service: Gracious, genuine, sets the tone for an excellent meal
Must-Haves: Stracciatella, tripe, fluke
Cost: Around $50/head before wine (and you'll want wine)
Grade: Highly recommended for the caliber of the food and drink, and the service to properly enjoy them
It started with a phone call, as so few restaurant experiences do nowadays.
"Hi there, I'd love to come in tonight with a party of two. Do you have any availability?"
"Thanks for thinking of us! Unfortunately our peak times are booked since it's Saturday, but we could happily seat you at 9:30. And if you like, you're welcome to come in a bit earlier, and there's a good chance we might be able to squeeze you in a bit before."
We did, and they did; and the hostess asked whether we'd prefer a seat near the windows, thrown open on a warm June night, or whether we'd be more comfortable farther in; we sat streetside, looking out onto Sixth Avenue. It's the sort of place you walk by on a pleasant evening and can't help but notice, can't help but envy the folks eating and sipping wine with a front-row seat onto Soho and looking like they couldn't be happier.
But even the prettiest new restaurants don't always nail the food. And even those new restaurants that do nail the food, often don't nail the service. Charlie Bird gets all of the above and more; it's one of my favorite openings of the year.
From Robert Bohr, formerly a partner and sommelier at Cru, and chef Ryan Hardy, of Montagna at the Little Nell in Aspen, Charlie Bird is an Italian-accented restaurant of the current New York model—tightly focused, resolutely seasonal, as willing to put tripe on the menu as chicken. There's a young, lively feel about it, hip-hop on the speakers and menus splashed with color. And between Bohr and sommelier Grant Reynolds, formerly of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, there's a team happy to talk through every bottle and eager to help you drink great wine. How eager? Any wine bottle on the list can be ordered as a half-bottle for half-price, instantly expanding your options.
My first visit there was the first time I'd tried Blaufrankish in a rosé, for instance, the Scarpetta Timido sparkling rosé ($45) of a Blaufrankish–Pinot Noir blend. (It's made by Bobby Stuckey, also of Frasca Food and Wine). And I was impressed by the Aglianco (Montevetrano 2011; $25 for a half) we were offered after mulling over a Nero d'Avola. I let my date handle the wine chat portion of the evening and sat back to listen as they settled on options.
"Is the Aglianco chilled?"
Without missing a beat: "We have it down at 58°F, which I think is ideal, but I'm happy to ice it and bring it down a bit further if you like."
Service that simultaneously offers expertise and helps customers get what they want—sad to say, but that's a novelty these days.
It's easy to get caught up in wine and forget what's to come, but once the food hits the table it can't be ignored. The kitchen's knack for seasonality—not obtrusive, just genuine—comes through in dishes like the showstopper Stracciatella ($12). The soft cheese is among the most vibrant of its kind I'd ever had, so milky and fresh it's hard to compare to lesser versions; it's imported from Rome, which is remarkable given the short half-life cheeses this fresh have. Blanched fava beans and radishes are a fresh spring accent, with grilled bread to slather it all on.
If I wanted to convince a skeptic to love tripe, I might very well start with Charlie Bird's Tripe "Lovely Style" ($14), in a sultry stew with tomatoes, veal cheeks, and sausage; the thin ribbons of tripe end up tender, not rubbery, their funk a gentle backdrop rather than an aggressive focus. And a special of Langoustines ($22) was a revelation, as served: "You can have them raw, or grilled," said our waiter. "But I'd recommend both." That meant two of each, the raw tender and impossibly sweet, the grilled taking on a char that changed their character entirely, a bit of oil and chili all the adornment they needed.
Seafood is a clear strength here. Skate on the Wing ($27) may not have been the most novel dish on the menu, but it's beautifully done, pan-sautéed in brown butter, accompanying Romanesco in olive oil, chilies and Parmesan. The Suckling Piglet ($29) showed a similar precision: slow roasted to a point of fork-tenderness, skin so crisp it's hard to refrain from plucking it off and eating it first. Vegetable sides, too, are thoughtful but not overwrought, such as fresh Peas ($8) with spring onions and rendered guanciale.
Desserts didn't disappoint. I loved the Strawberry Rhubarb Semifreddo ($12), with preserved and raw strawberries scattered on top, and a salted oat crumble good enough to eat on its own—but raised an eyebrow at the price tag. Much of an experience at Charlie Bird feels like a value to me—the ability to order half-bottles, a decent number of wines $50 or under, the strength of the service for the price point; at other times, it became more clear that I was paying a premium for the caliber of restaurant.
But that didn't bother me at Charlie Bird. A number of things didn't bother me that well might have elsewhere. It's the only time I'd ever heard a waiter say, "The chef brought his own vinegar from Colorado" without sounding pretentious. There's a section on the wine list denoted "Shameless Plug"—calling out folks they know, "For Our Sommelier Friends Who Make Wine"—but with such a carefully designed wine list, it's easy to trust these as true endorsements, not just a shout-out. And the service, which often veered toward the chatty, was so natural that the friendliness read as genuine, not obsequious or informal.
"Genuine" is the operative word. Charlie Bird conveys a sense of energy, a sense of excitement, though it's a restaurant that seems far older than its months. It reads as a place where every member of the team is proud of the result—the product of vision, not calculation. There's soul here, and charm that's hard to deny. Go, sit by the window, chat with the sommelier, order the tripe, and tell me if you don't feel the same.