The hostess, a young Oriental woman with a large spider tattooed on the back of her neck, was not pleased. I was nearly half an hour late for dinner. I had called, but instead of being thanked for my good manners, I had been informed–rather tartly–that tables at Fressen were held for no more than 15 minutes.
They weren’t kidding.
“You were warned!” said the hostess. “We had to give yours away, but we can accommodate you by the bar.”
I followed the spider along the hallway and around the corner. Her sandals clicked against the polished concrete floor. Like a teacher delivering a tardy child to the classroom, she sat me down next to a wooden grid that stretched up to the ceiling, separating the bar area from the dining room. Through it, you could see that half the tables were empty.
“They’re all booked.” she said. In less than half an hour, every table was indeed full.
Fressen is the latest restaurant to spring up in this revitalized neighborhood, way over by the West Side Highway in the heart of the meat district, a couple of blocks below Chelsea Market and two doors down from a bar called Hogs & Heifers. It seems just yesterday that this area was as deserted as SoHo in the 60’s (except for the bistro Florent, and the Hell Fire Club, where people who like that sort of thing still go to be whipped and tied up). Now the old warehouses and market buildings are being renovated and turned into apartments (Keith McNally is slated to open a hotel there), shops and restaurants are springing up and, on summer nights, crowds spill out in the cobbled streets from gallery openings, clutching plastic glasses of white wine.
The restaurant, in one of the former warehouses, is enormous and loud (but the music is actually terrific), and the sound bounces off the concrete walls. The space is cleverly and attractively broken up by the grids, Japanese screens and walls that are painted a shiny brown that looks like lacquer. There’s a disk jockey by the bar with two turntables who means business. The lively crowd ranges from museum directors and ad critics, models and writers, to Sandra Bernhard, seated at a banquette with a girlfriend and six identical-looking hunks, a testimony to their gyms, who kissed each other all through dinner.
It is no accident that Fressen (in Yiddish and German it means “to eat well”) is so deeply hip. Chef and co-owner Lynn McNeely cooked for four years for the artist Ross Bleckner and then worked at Balthazar Bakery. So the bread, obviously, is excellent, a basket of sliced brown and white sourdough loaves with thick crusts, served with olive oil for dipping. The menu changes every day, and it reads like the sort of thing a chef who knows his business can compile on the spur of the moment after an enthusiastic early morning run to the market.
One evening, there was octopus–not just the tentacles, but the belly of the beast, grilled and as tender a piece as you could wish for. A soft-shell crab, looking like a creature out of Jules Verne, was encased in a light tempura batter; inside, a scallion had been enfolded so that it looked like a long tendril. The batter was light, the crab juicy, and it was nicely complemented by a plum wine Chinese dipping sauce. The squid did not present such an alarming sight; it was cut in small, tender chunks and mixed with a salad of pea shoots and briny sea beans. Airy fritters made with bacalao came with aioli that could have done with an extra jolt of garlic.
Much of the produce served at Fressen is organic and the vegetable dishes are first-rate, very fresh and well seasoned. The mixed antipasto one day may consist of baby marinated artichokes, fresh anchovies and tiny roasted beets, another day it is roasted cipollini onions, grilled baby eggplant, rock shrimp and bruschetta topped with fava bean purée. Caesar salad (served “downtown style,” as a friend put it) is not chopped up but made with hearts of romaine tossed in a dressing with freshly grated Parmesan and big, crunchy croutons.
Two of my favorite dishes are the grilled treviso topped with Old Chatham Sheepherding cheese (which is from upstate and like a melted brie) and the lentil tart, which sounds like some punishment devised for vegetarians but was wonderful, in light, crumbly pastry crust with a balsamic vinegar dressing.
One night there was grilled whole black bass on the menu, perfectly cooked, but I would have liked to have seen more of the artichokes barigoule that came with it. Seared sea scallops were sweet and juicy, a good foil for pickled cucumber, a mixed-grain salad flavored with lots of mint, and a yellow tomato vinaigrette. Mr. McNeely also turns out a fine pepper-crusted dry-aged rib eye, which comes with enormous onion rings.
Desserts include a warm gianduja cake, rich and gooey, with hazelnut espresso ice cream and chocolate sauce and cherry clafoutis. The panna cotta, a quivering ivory dome in a mango and ginger lime syrup, was delicious, a better choice than the peach tarte Tatin, which was on the chewy side.
The chocolate and caramel fondue, straight from the 50’s (too bad Mom sold her set in her last tag sale), is served with fruit and madeleines. It also comes with, of all things, house-made marshmallows. Those, for me at least, are a first.
421 West 13th Street, at Washington Street
Dress: Tank tops, tattoos
Noise level: High
Wine list: Reasonably priced, well chosen
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $12 to $26
Hours: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to midnight, bar to 2 A.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor