August on Bleecker Street:
Summery Mediterranean Fare
“I’ve found a lovely, laid-back little restaurant in the West Village that reminds me of places I’ve been to in Europe,” a friend told me over the telephone the other day. “They don’t take reservations, but we shouldn’t have a problem getting a table.”
Laid-back was exactly what I needed. It was a vile, muggy night as I set off to meet my friend at August, located on a leafy block on Bleecker Street near the corner of Charles, and I was ready for a low-key, relaxing dinner.
The front room was packed and pretty noisy, but it had a great deal of Old World charm: a small wine bar, a brick wood-burning pizza oven in the back and large windows giving onto the street. The high, arched ceiling is made of cork, and the distressed walls are reminiscent of an ancient wine cave: They’re painted a luminous mustard, with layers of plaster peeled back over purple splotches that look like bruises. Small tables are jammed along two sides of the room and lined with dark wood banquettes that look like pews in a Quaker meeting house. My friend was right: You could be in Venice, Austria, Paris or Berlin, where I was just recently.
The food at August is European-not toyed with or reinvented, but focused on tradition. The wide-ranging menu, conceived by the owner, Jason Hennings, and the chef, Tony Liu (formerly sous chef at Babbo), changes with the seasons. It’s not just that the ingredients are impeccable; the cooking has a vigorous personal style that makes you sense a human being’s touch-somewhere back in one of the restaurant’s two pocket-sized kitchens (one of them down a narrow flight of stairs in the basement), this person has a gift for seasoning with spices and herbs.
For the summer, the emphasis is on cooking from the Mediterranean. We began with pieces of tender grilled octopus tossed in a sprightly vinaigrette dressing with marinated chickpeas and red onion, seasoned with lemon and oregano and topped off with a dash of sea salt. A white gazpacho, made with cucumber, bread crumbs and almonds blended smooth with garlic and olive oil and laced with whole green grapes, was one of the most refreshing summer soups I’ve ever tasted. Fish “crudo” consisted of slivers of fresh, raw sea bass piled up in an earthenware ramekin with shavings of fennel, lemon and green Ligurian olives. One night I ordered croquettas, a Spanish tapas dish of salt cod and ham rolled into balls and deep-fried. They were the size of large marbles. “The darker ones are the ham; they don’t need sauce, because there’s béchamel already in them,” explained the waitress. “The lighter ones are the cod, and they go into the aioli.”
And what an aioli! It was a creamy, bright yellow mayonnaise, redolent of garlic, into which you dipped the crunchy salt-cod fritters. And when biting into the ham ones, you tasted a little burst of béchamel at the back of your mouth.
I also liked the blistered green peppers “in the style of padron,” which arrived piled up in an earthenware dish. One or two of these delicious, sweet and slightly spicy peppers, glistening with olive oil, were enough. This is a dish to share, or to have on the side with other things.
The pizza oven delivers a wonderful tarte flambé: a thin, square pizza, puffed and browned, topped with thick chunks of bacon, onions and crème fraîche. “Coca catalana” is made with a pizza crust baked in a cast-iron dish, topped with spinach, artichokes, pine nuts and currants. You have to let it sit or you’ll burn the roof of your mouth. One day I had a pizza made just with baby calamari and baby tomatoes: so simple and so good.
The owner’s hand is evident in everything, from the paper menus printed in old-fashioned lettering to the choice of wines. When you order by the glass, the waiter automatically offers you a taste. The prices, both for the food and the wine, are extremely reasonable. How many good restaurants these days charge $6 for a decent glass of wine, or $24 for a prime rib that can hold its own to any steakhouse?
On my first night at August, I felt like we were watching a sight gag, one of those circus routines in which clown after clown emerges from a tiny car: An endless stream of young women poured through the front door, all decked out with similar long hair, hipster jeans, tank tops and high-heeled sandals. A gang of seven was followed by two gangs of four and a gang of five, all heading to the back where there’s a garden (it’s enclosed with a glass ceiling, but the noise bounces off the brick walls and cobblestone floor).
On another night, the place had a much more laid-back neighborhood clientele. “I like your dress,” said the waiter to an older woman, clearly a regular, who was joined by her husband. She beamed with pleasure. We were trying to decide on a main course. “Would you like meat or lamb?” asked the waiter.
By “meat,” I guess he meant the bavette, which was cut in rare, charred slices, full of flavor, and served with a clean-tasting, peppery salad of watercress and slivered radishes. The roast lamb shoulder, seasoned with Provençal herbs, arrived with a lovely ratatouille and two thick-cut polenta fries (so much better than the thin, chewy French fries offered as a side dish). At lunchtime, you can get braised lamb on foccaccio, with arugula and a salad made with farmers’-market green beans.
The man at the next table was eating a special of the day: roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce. He gave us a thumbs-up without pausing between bites, so my companion decided to order it. “It’s really, really good. It’s juicy, more satisfying than a charred steak and not an embarrassing, indecent size. And the Yorkshire pudding is first-rate.”
If you’re trying to decide between the grilled orata or the skate, it’s a tough call. The skate is moist but crispy and comes with a buttery sauce laced with capers and topped with small bits of lemon. The orata, a delicate white fish, was grilled on the bone; the waiter broke it open and poured in some olive oil. It was served with olives and cooked just right.
For dessert, the apricot tart, made with a free-form shell, was better than the clafoutis, which could’ve used more cherries-and like most clafoutis, it was a little heavy. A shimmering panna cotta came with chunks of stewed rhubarb, and a thick, dark chocolate pot au crème was served in a white china cauldron with whipped cream. The waiter recommended Linzer torte.
“I hate Linzer torte,” said my friend.
“So do I,” I said. “Let’s order it.”
As I’d hoped, a taste of the Linzer torte at August changed our minds. I’m sure they don’t do it better in Linz itself. Instead of the usual overly sweet concoction made with raspberry jam, this version was made with fresh raspberries on a dark, crumbly crust loaded with crushed almonds. Fresh figs with ricotta and vin cotto, an Italian dessert wine, were also a great wind-up to the meal.
Another gang of young women came through the door. “Oh, well,” said the friend who’d brought me here. “I guess it’s impossible to have a place that just is what it is. Word gets out.”