424 East 9th Street, New York NY 10009 (b/n First and A; map); 212-228-8525; exchangealleynyc.com
Service: Delightful; genuine and helpful
Setting: Sexy, low-lit NOLA-styled bar and restaurant
Must-Haves: Anchovy toast, jambalaya balls, fried pickled okra
Cost: Starters below $12, mains around $20
Writing about New York restaurant openings day after day, it can be easy to forget that not every restaurant is attempting to do something boundary-pushing. There are restaurants that open with more modest ambitions. To be a comfortable, likable neighborhood hangout, with sexy lighting and foot-tapping soundtrack; to serve food that people want to eat, that appeals to the gut rather than the head, that smells incredible as it passes through the dining room.
And those are the sorts of ways in which Exchange Alley, opened late this summer on East Ninth Street, succeeds.
The chef and co-owner Paul Gerard was born in Brooklyn but spent much of his cooking career in New Orleans, which comes through clearly in the menu—pasta with vodka sauce here, jambalaya balls and fried okra there—and in the general feel of the place. While it's a little surprising to see a bar this pretty without a liquor bottle display behind it—the general mood has me expecting a Sazerac or a Ramos Gin Fizz—Exchange Alley only has a wine and beer license. But they do quite well with their liquorless cocktails, such as the "Negroni Gone Wrong" ($10): juniper-infused sake, Carpano Antica Formula, grapefruit juice, and a float of cava.
The anchovy toast ($6) was an early example of simple food done right, and when done right becomes truly memorable. Thick, crusty bread (from Amy's) is toasted so that there's a little bit of char but the insides remain soft and steamy. It's absolutely slathered in anchovy butter—cured anchovies and garlic simmered in olive oil, then combined with butter and parsley —such that it melts and drips down through the pores in the bread and ends up pooled underneath, giving you even more anchovy to pull your crusts through. This is no delicate spread of a powerful ingredient; it's an immodest full-on assault of anchovy and garlic. I loved it. Others might not, but there's no hedging bets here.
The "dirty gravy" served with the jambalaya balls ($10) is equally unapologetic, a pork, beef, and dark roux gravy made rich and sultry with chicken liver. "It's inspired by Cajun dirty rice. It's essentially that dish, without the rice," says the chef. "It's like taking an old backwoods recipe and adding French technique." It's an excellent counterpart to the balls themselves, with arancino-like golden brown crunch, whose interior reveals highly spiced rice with rock shrimp.
Fried pickled okra ($8) continued the trend of well-fried Southern fare; the strong vinegar flavor adding a little interest to what would otherwise be just a straightforward fried vegetable. And on the slightly lighter side, a ricotta and lemon flatbread ($11) was also done well, a thin, pliant bread cooked on the grill with a little bit of char, creamy ricotta with a ton of salt, olive oil, and lemon zest to keep things interesting.
For the most part, these bar snack-ier dishes are the best ones. Deep-fried shisito peppers ($6), with sherry-pickled apples, are just what you want those peppers to be. Smoked whitefish & caraway chips ($7) is an impressive dip of halibut and cod, smoked over hickory, made rich and scoopable with creme fraiche and mayo. Slightly less successful were the Big Easy BBQ shrimp ($13). The dish is inspired by a Paul Prudhomme recipe, Gerard told us. Head-on shrimp are cooked with blackening spice, thyme, beer, worcestershire sauce, and chilies, and finished with shrimp butter (essentially butter simmered with shrimp shells). These flavors all emerge beautifully in the buttery, deeply seasoned bath they swim in, but on our visit the shrimp themselves were a touch overcooked.
Plenty of these dishes speak to a strong New Orleans theme, but the more Brooklyn of them do shine, as well. I'd rarely call out a remarkable pasta with vodka sauce, but Gerard's rendition is impressive. The priest stranglers with sausage ($18)—you could call them strozzapretti, their Italian monicker, but what fun is that?—were one of the best dishes we tried (and the translation of that name, in keeping with the spirit of the place). It starts with housemade pork sausage, cooked with a ton of garlic and Calabrian chilies; the pan is deglazed with vodka, Pernod, cream, parmesan, and tomatoes confited in olive oil. The pasta, too, is housemade. Straightforward, soul-satisfying, and pretty tough to stop eating. I'd say the same of a side dish of oyster mushrooms ($7)—"practically deep-fried in butter," then tossed in a smoked tomato butter with saba.
And several of the composed entrees succeeded as well, including the striped bass ($24) with fregola and pork. The fregola is toasted in butter then slowly cooked like a risotto, then stirred with house-smoked pork belly that's been confited, then topped with seared striped bass. The result is a pasta swollen and smoky with pork fat and a formidable portion of bacon, a rich and appealing base for the simply prepared fish. The clean, bright flavors of a red pepper sofrito focus the dish.
Not everything was cooked perfectly. Generally, a good crust and a much rarer interior on a hanger steak is exactly what I want, but in the case of this "hard herb hanger" ($21), the exterior was so charred as to completely dominate the flavor, whereas the interior was a deep, almost-raw reddish-purple. But we liked the spice crust on the steak, though—rosemary, sage, and oregano—and the potato-tomato-onion-herb salad alongside.
I'd go back to Exchange Alley, while still finding things that aren't perfect about it. I'd love the fried okra, anchovy toast, or even oyster mushrooms as bar snacks, for instance—but would be much more inclined to sit at a bar with a full liquor license. I'm a huge fan of several entrees, but not enough to endorse everything on the menu.
Still, it's a young restaurant, and a very likable one. Friendly service, a good-looking space, fair prices, and a lively-not-crowded East Village feel go a long way. And the jambalaya balls? Those speak for themselves.