“You want me to say, ‘I love you?’” the elderly man at the next table asked the woman across from him. “O.K.: I love you. I love you. I love you. But I accepted that the first time you told me.”
She looked about his age, and wore plain gold earrings and a black dress that matched her hair. “Women like to be told,” she said.
“Anything else you like?”
“I love you!”
I was sitting on the parlor floor of Clove, a quirky new restaurant that has moved into the two-story Upper East Side townhouse that was formerly Anne Rosenzweig’s Lobster Club. The windows are now hung with gingham curtains and the floors sport flowered Italian tiles. The young woman who greets you warmly at the door wears a pink gingham sundress and strappy sandals. And as you look out onto the trees of East 80th Street, you feel that you should be on Long Island–where, in July, many of Clove’s customers surely are.
So when we’re told that one of the specials of the day is a lobster sandwich, it seems fitting. If only we could take it out to eat on the beach, along with a cold bottle of Sancerre (ordered from the restaurant’s short, predictable but reasonably priced wine list).
Clove, which opened at the beginning of June, serves regional American cuisine. It’s the sort of summery food you want, notched up. Fried chicken gets a dose of buttermilk and lavender to elevate it beyond the Popeyes range; scallops arrive floating on green-grape gazpacho; grilled Atlantic salmon comes with wild-mushroom bread pudding and a blackberry vinaigrette.
The restaurant is owned by two Upper East Side-bred sisters, Karen and Jennifer Handler. (The latter is also the proprietor of Caffe Grazie, an Italian bistro four blocks north on 84th Street.) Chef Rebecca Rubel, who was last at Infusion in San Francisco, cooks in the California style: fresh, simple ingredients put together in a modern way while steering clear of the outlandish. The food is served on a mix of oversize green or white plates from Fishs Eddy that have a country feel without being self-consciously rustic.
We were a little surprised by the gift from the chef that arrived one evening. Each person was offered a teaspoon containing just a dollop of risotto, a dense mixture of rice, carrots, chanterelles and diced roasted beets flavored with white-truffle essence.
“I think it’s cruel to give people just a teaspoon of a risotto this good,” my companion said as she put down her empty spoon.
“I’m stuffed!” said another friend sarcastically. “For my main course, I’ll just have a pinch of duck.”
Apart from the teasing spoonfuls, Ms. Rubel’s food is generous and not the slightest bit precious. You can begin with a giant bowl of smoky tomato bisque, drizzled with crème fraîche and flavored with ginger and lime. Its complex flavors reveal themselves further with each mouthful. The green-grape gazpacho, balanced by tart tomatillo, is also a marvel, with a subtle sweetness that’s not the least cloying.
Chopped salad is one of those dishes that’s either great or a bore. Ms. Rubel’s is a refreshing mix of tomato and cucumbers laced with croutons, feta, slivered basil and mint. But the surprise ingredient is watermelon, cut into chunks and tossed in with the rest. Smoked sablefish is presented not in slices but chopped up with fingerling potatoes, tossed in crème fraîche and shaped into a disk topped with American sturgeon caviar. It was bland, though; maybe it needs more fish.
The lobster sandwich, a first course, is as refined a thing as you’d ever hope to see–not heaps of flesh on a large hot-dog bun (which I like, too), but small pieces placed on half a miniature brioche roll, the other half nestled alongside and topped with salmon roe. Pan-fried oysters are light and crunchy, replaced in their shells on beds of diced bacon, creamed corn and pickled peppers.
“These are great,” said my friend. “But not so great if you drop them onto the rock salt that’s holding the shells in place,” she added after fishing one out and eating it.
In summer, you can’t have too much corn. At Clove, it comes grilled with steamed Maine lobster. It’s also made into a creamy, thick chowder with clams, a main course that’s topped with slices of crisp-skinned striped bass. Halibut crusted with artichokes would be very good were it not dried out under its coating. Focus instead on the perfectly pan-roasted baby artichokes, sunchokes and fingerling potatoes that come with it.
The tantalizing teaspoon of risotto that kicked off dinner spurred one of my companions to order risotto as a main course. It’s the same dish minus the beets, liberally doused with white-truffle essence. She liked it every bit as much.
Ms. Rubel glazes her crisp-skinned roast chicken with honey and herbs, and serves it with mashed potatoes and an intense reduction of chicken stock and herbs. A pork chop, cured with maple syrup and bourbon, is also juicy and full of flavor, balanced by a mound of creamy white polenta with a chutney of plums, apricots and dried cherries. And my friend who promised she’d have just a pinch of duck ate every morsel of the rare, meaty slices of duck breast that came with figs, sweet potatoes and a hash of duck confit.
Apart from a disastrously dry strawberry shortcake, the desserts live up to the rest of the meal. They include the ubiquitous fallen chocolate soufflé: dark, molten and very rich, topped with vanilla ice cream. The key-lime tartlet with a graham-cracker crust and lemon-verbena cream is extraordinary, but the warm peach crisp and bread pudding with banana and white chocolate aren’t far behind.
By the time we were on dessert, the couple at the next table were long gone; he’d paid the bill before our first courses arrived and seen her gently to the stairs. “Obviously they’re not married,” one of my friends had commented dryly as she watched them leave.
Such was the scene at Clove. Instead, come here for good food in a setting that’s quiet without being dreary, brightened by an exceedingly attractive staff. I’m sure that couple will be back for another date.
24 East 80th Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Short, predictable, fairly priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses, lunch, $14.50 to $24; dinner, $21 to $32
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. To 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. To 10 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor