The other night, I had the Kafkaesque experience of showing up at a restaurant I’d been to just three weeks earlier to find it had disappeared. Gone without a trace. My friend and I searched the shuttered storefronts on Cleveland Place in Soho until I began to wonder if I’d never been to the restaurant at all and just dreamed the whole thing up. As we stood in the street wondering where to go, I remembered a French bistro on Prince Street called Mix It that I’d passed by not long ago. It was just a few blocks away, so we decided to give it a try.
But when we got there, Mix It was gone too. The premises looked much the same, except the reception desk was decorated with porcupine quills and rolls of silver birch bark. The restaurant was now called Porcupine. (Perhaps the name was symbolic: Porcupines, in case you didn’t know, aren’t carnivores but arbivores; they like to gnaw through the bark of trees and dine on the soft, juicy stuff underneath.)
It turned out that the owner of the Porcupine, Jacques Ouari, had decided to ditch the short-lived Mix It and start over with a new chef and a new name. The chef, Matthew Weingarten, previously worked with Katy Sparks at Quilty’s and at Tuscan.
Porcupine’s tavern-like room was full and bustling when we arrived. Jaunty French music was playing in the background. A long mahogany bar running almost the length of the restaurant has a patina suggesting the place had been around for years, not weeks. It looks like an out-of-the-way workers’ bistro in Paris with the requisite wooden tables, dark-red leather banquettes, giant mirrors, pressed-tin ceiling and burnished gold-brown walls.
A young woman sat down at the bar, and the bartender brought her a taste of the house pinot noir. She shook her head. “Can I have something a bit … er … fuller?”
“Cabernet is the fullest; pinot noir is the lightest,” he replied, and then brought over three more glasses of wine for her to taste. “Smells really good,” she said and, after taking a sip, settled on the Cabernet.
I was impressed. I’ve been to some restaurants recently where wine by the glass costs around $12 without a tasting beforehand; at Porcupine, 10 wines by the glass are listed on a blackboard, priced between $6 and $9, and you can sample to your taste. The international wine list of around two dozen bottles each of red and white has many good deals.
The food at Porcupine is also inexpensive, with main courses for dinner running between $16 for pasta to $25 for a steak, and a complete brunch for $12. Mr. Weingarten describes his food as “American rustic.” Many of his imaginative dishes reflect an Italian influence, too, and the emphasis is on fresh, seasonal ingredients.
When you sit down, you get a board of crunchy peasant bread with three varieties of radishes and butter. The menu arrives on what appears to be a large pad, with sheets of blank pages underneath. For comments, perhaps?
I began with yellow tail (the new yellow fin; it’s as de rigueur on menus these days as tuna tartare was a year ago). Mr. Weingarten serves it in generous, thick slices, topped with shaved Jerusalem artichokes, black radish and celery root in a vinaigrette made with toasted almonds, wild oregano and smoked chili fIakes. It’s excellent, as is the slow-roasted cauliflower that reminds me of one of my favorite childhood dishes-cauliflower cheese-taken to another level. The dish, based on a Ligurian recipe, consists of whole roasted cauliflower seasoned with toasted fennel seeds and Aleppo pepper and served with a creamy walnut pesto and a compote of plump dried cherries marinated in red wine. My companion enjoyed it so much she asked for the recipe.
Oysters arrive on a bed of stones, served under a browned and bubbling gratiné with a green peppercorn mignonette and a garnish of shredded Asian pears. It’s an odd combination, but I liked it. A dark-green lettuce soup is seasoned with tarragon, parsley, chives and lemon tapioca pearls. Perhaps a tad less tarragon could be used, but the soup’s good nevertheless.
There is, however, a thorn in the side of Porcupine’s kitchen, and that’s overcooking, which spoiled several dishes that would otherwise have been terrific. It marred the halibut that came with artichoke purée, Jerusalem artichokes, pancetta and a toasted hazelnut vinaigrette. It also marred the breaded pancake of braised veal breast layered with apricots and herbs. Suckling pig with apples and pomegranate seeds was overcooked too. It was redeemed somewhat by the skin (called “crackling” in England and considered the best part), which was light, crisp and not the least bit fatty.
Other dishes made up for the overcooking. Rabbit ragu over hand-cut pappardelle was simply wonderful, a Piedmontese recipe made with sofrito, pancetta carrots, unsweetened cocoa and wild herbs. It was surprisingly light and delicate. For lunch, there is a fine grilled lamb sandwich with red onion and arugula on toasted sourdough rye spread with a mixture of prunes pounded into softened butter with chopped hyssop leaf, which adds an anise flavor; house-made gravlax is strewn with fried capers and served with lemon pickle, tomatoes and a warm broiled bialy on the side.
Apart from gelati, there are just three desserts, and they make a good finish to the meal. An Anjou pear is cooked in red wine with cardamom, vanilla and bay leaf and served with almond custard. A crumbly Italian torte, made with layers of chocolate and ricotta with grappam, comes with crème fraîche whipped with cream. There is also an artisanal cheese board with chutneys and country bread.
Porcupine is a welcome addition to this neighborhood on the edge of Soho (as is the new bookstore down the block). As for the vanished restaurant, that was Bar Tonno. Apparently it will re-open serving sushi. What’s the Japanese for “mirage”?