Warm, woody and welcoming, the Harrison works its charms from the moment you arrive. Upon passing through the door, you meet up with two, sometimes three, greeters, all of whom appear to be having a very good day. Within seconds, you are coatless and cheerfully on your way to the table, where you are thanked for taking your seats and wished a fine repast. I didn’t want to leave this place.
The Harrison looks like a clubby Upper East Side American bistro transplanted to the dusky fringe of Tribeca: dark wood, a burnished walnut bar, cream-colored wainscoting, hammered-tin lanterns and candles galore. Even the conservatively attired patrons appear to come from uptown ZIP codes.
Three and a half years old, the Harrison is the second collaboration of Danny Abrams and Jimmy Bradley, whose stable also includes the Red Cat, the Mermaid Inn and, most recently, Pace, on nearby Hudson Street. The food at the Harrison has always been good; however, it reached a peak last fall when the restaurant brought on board 36-year-old Brian Bistrong, whose résumé includes two years at Les-pinasse, seven years at Bouley, and the former Citarella (now called Josephs). Befitting this unaffected setting, his contemporary American cooking is inventive yet accessible, and with a clarity of flavors that never leaves the diner bewildered.
Virtually everything on the menu looks appealing. I rarely order quail as an appetizer, because it requires a lot of drilling for a thin vein of gold. Having seen one served to an adjacent table, however, I decided to give it a try. Partially deboned and splayed on the plate for easy cutting, it was roasted to golden crispness and boosted by a tamarind-tinged carrot “stew” flavored with cashew butter.
An example of the chef’s winning restraint is a homemade ricotta cavatelli-the cheese is part of the dough-swathed in a vibrant mélange of bitter greens and a touch of tomato, and holding succulent shards of rabbit. A foamy horse-radish sauce did wonders for a duo of bulky sea scallops, paired with a warm potato salad.
Even the ubiquitous fried calamari gets an uplifting treatment. Perfectly fried, the little pinkie rings are arranged over an invigorating combination of chopped parsley, chives, piquillo peppers and salty serrano ham. One of the more winsome dishes (and not among my favorites) is a play on biscuits and gravy, in which scallion-laced Southern biscuits are ringed by three types of clams-razor, Manila and Wellfleets-all adrift on a clam-juice velouté that was somewhat overshadowed by salty slivers of chorizo.
While the dining room can be crowded and cacophonous, the servers, donning preppy blue-checked shirts and ties, are sharp and professional, even when it comes to wine.
The international wine selection is organized by characteristics-light, medium-bodied and full-and quality bottles abound in all price ranges. Two exceptional inexpensive choices are the white 2003 AZ pinot gris, from the Willamette Valley in Oregon ($29); and, in red, the 2000 Meix Foulot Mercurey, 1er Cru, Cote Chalonnaise ($27).
Seafood is the strong card among main courses. A thick plank of pan-roasted fluke is enlivened with a zesty mustard sabayon and a bittersweet reduction of browned onions, vermouth and chicken stock. If you aren’t among the legions of anchovy-phobes, a subtle and mildly salty white anchovy sauce brings to life a beautiful fillet of grilled striped bass. Another uncommon combination-cod and braised red cabbage-sounded improbable, and while it was less combative than I had expected, the dish would have been fine with only its warm hazelnut dressing, toasted hazelnuts and crosnes (similar to Jerusalem artichokes).
Calf’s liver aficionados would be delighted with this rendition, served with a sweet sherry reduction and a terrific bacon and onion torta. An excellent quality free-range chicken, firm and meaty, is perfectly roasted and served in a faintly sharp paprika sauce, Brussels sprouts and chestnut stuffing. Vegetables are à la carte, and I can recommend the heady leek and mushroom risotto and herbed spaetzle.
Pastry chef Jeff Gerace turns out a patriotic assembly of fine desserts like banana cream pie, apple and cranberry crisp, and devil’s food cake. Also outstanding was the meyer lemon meringue pie with an intriguing lemon-thyme sabayon and candied kumquats. And if the chocolate mousse layered devil’s food cake weren’t swoony enough, the superb coffee ice cream, velvety and rich, packs enough caffeine to energize a fleet of cabbies.