Maiden Lane: A Wine Bar that Shows the Virtue of Canned Seafood
162 Avenue B, New York, NY 10009 (at 10th; map); 646-755-8911; themaidenlane.com
Setting: Clean and stark, like Ikea's sexy cousin
Service: Quiet but friendly, very knowledgeable
Compare To: Ardesia, Anfora, Terroir
Must-Haves: Big Board, canned cod liver, salads
Cost: salads and sandwiches $6 to $12, smoked and preserved fish $7 each, canned seafood $7 to $15
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. Well-sourced and -presented cured meats, fish, and cheese with a small but ample wine and beer selection. Don't go if you're expecting much by way of hot food.
Let's open a restaurant and bar in the East Village that doesn't serve liquor, has no kitchen, and prepares most of its food by opening a can and slapping it on a cutting board is the kind of business plan that wouldn't get much traction if it weren't coming from the two former general managers of Torrisi and Parm. But that's exactly what Nialls Fallon and Gareth Maccubbin have done with the old Life Cafe space on the northwest corner of Tompkins Square Park.
The space is not particularly East Village either. You can slide into a wide park bench-style wooden banquette, or sidle up to the concrete bar on a black stool. It all feels very minimalist Scandinavian, functional but very comfortable, like a showroom in Ikea's higher class, sexier sister store.
The kitchen space is as minimalist as the restaurant, currently consisting of nothing but a low-boy refrigerator, a sandwich station, and a single induction burner, which is currently used only for testing the few hot menu items that will eventually make an appearance.
For now, your options are limited to cured meats, fish, and cheese, as well as a number of salads and sandwiches, but thankfully there's a large array to choose from within those categories, all of it reasonably priced and quite good.
Some dishes rely on nothing but a few small composed cold elements. The best of the small bites is a spoonful of crème fraîche topped with cured salmon roe and a pinch of chives ($3 per spoon). The mildly salty eggs are plenty fresh and burst nicely on your tongue when you press them against the roof of your mouth. Pickled white anchovies with their pale flesh and glistening silver skin are also available by the piece ($1).
Tea sandwiches come in three flavors (Virginia ham, cucumber, and trout salad) at $5 each, slathered in softened butter, served cut into rectangles with the crusts removed. I didn't have tea to wash them down with, but my Ballast Point Sculpin IPA ($6) did the trick. It's one of a dozen or so bottles available, including $5 tall boys of Naragansett (are you even allowed to open a downtown bar without tall boys on the menu these days?).
There are no full cocktails on the menu, but a number of wine and beer-based drinks like the Black Vulture ($8), a kalimotxo variant made with red wine, Mexican coke, and a homemade sarsaparilla syrup which gives it a nice vanilla-scented root beer twang. But if you're looking for a predinner aperitif, it's hard to do better than bittersweet Vergano Chinato Americano from Piedmont, which is offered for $11 a glass.
Taking a glance at the rest of the drinks list reveals Maiden Lane's true identity: It's a wine bar that just happens to serve some good small plates and sandwiches. There are a dozen glass pours on the menu, along with over 50 bottles that lean toward coastal Old World wines with an affinity for seafood. There are a few small-producer grower-made Champagnes on the menu, and the extensive sherry list is worth exploring.
Tuna or salmon packed in water has given canned seafood a bad rap in this country, but that's not the case everywhere. Canned seafood has a place in the Spanish culinary repertoire as respected as, say, jarred foie gras in France or dried pasta in the Italian. That is, just because it ain't fresh, doesn't mean it can't be delicious. Maiden Lane embraces this concept more completely than any restaurant I've seen—fully half of its menu is made up of high quality canned Spanish seafood, served directly from the can with a side of parsley salad, bread, and softened butter.
Is this idea going to turn some people off? Probably, at first. But it's easy to forget once you've gotten a plump, tender mussel in escabeche on the end of your toothpick or a smear of butter-smooth confit cod liver spread on your toast. It helps that it's all reasonably priced as well. According to a quick calculation based on prices I found online, most of the cans are marked up around 60 to 80% from mail-order retail price. Compare that with the average 300 to 400% markup on basic food costs at most restaurants, or the 500 to 600% markups people pay on beer simply to sip it in a nice atmosphere from a good glass, and it doesn't seem like a bad deal at all.
The seafood doesn't only come in cans. There are also curated pickled and preserved fish plates on the front half of the menu (they come with onions, cucumber, and bread) ranging from whitefish salad from Russ & Daughters to a dill-cured salmon. Our favorite was a smoky trout salad laced with tarragon. You can order them individual for $7, a sampler of four for $20, or go all out with the big board ($50), a selection of 4 cured meats (on this visit we had Spanish morcilla, saucisson sec from Portland, smoked duck breast, and country ham), a few cheeses (from Germany, Ireland, and Italy), all of the preserved fish, and more accompaniments than I cared to take notes on.
It's a lot of food—easily enough to make a meal out of for two people or snacks for four to five, which may be the best way to experience it. This is the kind of place I'd visit with my roommate or my sister on a week night, or perhaps with some work colleagues for an early evening glass of wine.
The tomato salad we tried had some great tomatoes served as they should be—with just a drizzle of good olive oil, some salt, and a few leafy herbs (in this case shiso), along with a scattering of a creamy but mild German blue cheese.
We weren't quite as fond of the gazpacho, which hit all the right flavors—olive oil, good tomato, and sherry vinegar—but had a bit too much un-emulsified bread in it. As Max put it, "I don't want to have to chew my soup."
A better pick for a solo diner might be the chorizo sandwich ($10), which comes open-faced and topped with pickled green tomatoes, shallots, a spicy Old Bay mayo, and a big herb salad what was just a bit too herbal for our tastes.
I could easily see myself ordering a trout salad and a glass of wine for dinner, or a chorizo sandwich with a homemade sarsaparilla soda for lunch. The whole place has a comfy neighborhood vibe that is hip without being pretentious, fancy enough to make you feel elegant but not ripped off, and that's something that you can't pull out of a can.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.