Well, Recette, you’ve done it now. My partner and I fell to discussing this West Village restaurant’s unusual soundtrack – grunge, grunge, indie, Phil Collins – then before I knew it, conversation had turned to the perfect “first dance” song for a wedding – and suddenly we were engaged. We may be the first couple in decades to pop the question to “Another Day in Paradise”. That’s as good a way as any to ensure a restaurant stays dear to one’s heart (or, of course, becomes impassable if things go wrong) – but there’s plenty memorable about Recette itself, too.
Chef Jesse Schenker notes that music is key to Recette’s environment. When he points illustratively to the speaker that’s been not quite blasting out Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Radiohead all evening he simultaneously shows off the Pearl Jam lyrics tattooed on his inner arm. I don’t think anyone comes here just because of his taste in music, but it adds a certain frisson which I’m sure the clientele – young folk, mostly, all plaid shirts and Breton tops – appreciates nonetheless.
The room is minuscule: I’d say it comfortably seats about 30, which makes it a slight shame that more than 40 diners were crammed in when we visited. Low-lit, low-ceilinged, taupe-walled, it’s far less cool than the soundtrack or the clientele, but at least doing nothing to distract from the excellent food.
Recette boasts one of those dauntingly extensive menus where you end up seeking advice from your server on how many small and large plates to order. Ours suggested three small plates per person, advice we eventually rejected in favour of adding supplementary dishes. (What seemed at first an unhelpful response when we asked her which was better between the raviolo and the chilled corn soup proved canny marketing, since we ended up ordering both).
My partner – by this stage in proceedings my fiancé – chose a chocolate cream served in something like a Riedel glass, its top layer a half-inch of sparkling milk – carbonated by hand in the kitchen
The menu at Recette takes inspiration from the whole of the Mediterranean, but with an undeniable Italian focus – there are pastas here, romesco sauces, salt cod fritters, charcuterie plates, branzino (bass) in a truffled mushroom sauce and beef carpaccio with burrata and porcini purée.
One of my dishes was a chilled corn soup – “which I am now pouring tableside,” our server informed us, with great solemnity, as she matched action to word. It lands on the table like summer in a plate, so sweet and bright gold in flavour it renders the accompanying fried squash flower uncharacteristically blunt and – who knew this could be a criticism? – too fried-tasting. Marinated Hamachi, savoury as sausage meat, comes topped with a sprig of samphire and two slick, curry-coloured petals of uni (sea urchin) which dissolve on the tongue instantly. “I’ll bring you a steak knife,” the server promises as he delivers a dish of pork belly accompanied by a dollop of sweet romesco sauce and a crisp twist of rock shrimp. Then he doesn’t, but perhaps that’s because he sees us tear at pork so tender you barely even need a regular knife to cut it. A crisp, deep-fried sweetbread with lemon-caper butter may be the most transcendently flavourful thing I’ve put in my mouth all year – bright, sharp, the nugget of sweetbread luxuriant in texture – even if the largeness of that nugget did once again raise that occasional faintly queasy question I have over what precisely a sweetbread is.
We ignored our server’s advice and ordered three extra pasta-based dishes, but might have overreached ourselves. Confit rabbit sits heavily with a slightly semolina-ish fregola pasta and fennel; a large raviolo of roasted cauliflower proved a little too bitter for its deeply savoury bed of mushroom and bacon. A briquette of oxtail and prawn lasagne, on the other hand, was a winner – the meat and seafood perfectly balanced, the dense soft texture offset by two tiny toothsome batons of heirloom carrot, one blanched white, one earth-black. Like the sweetbreads and the corn soup, this is comfort food gone haute, unimpeachable in execution and, despite its apparent simplicity, pleasingly impossible to replicate in the home.
Plenty of restaurants are going retro when it comes to desserts. Less exciting than it sounds, this customarily means profiteroles, knickerbocker glories or churros more remarkable for their excessive size than for any innovation. Recette’s Christine Lee has opted instead for more imaginatively artful twists on old favourites: her deconstruction of ’smores – like grits, this ultra-American foodstuff provokes a sense of deep familiarity even in someone who’s never tasted them; I blame Huck Finn – proves to consist of a long smear of torch-toasted meringue, a puddle of ground cocoa-nib dangerously close to ‘soil’, and an ice cream flavoured with Graham crackers (another mysterious, evocative American foodstuff known to me only through American literature). My partner – by this stage in proceedings my fiancé – chose a chocolate cream served in something like a Riedel glass, its top layer a half-inch of sparkling milk – carbonated by hand in the kitchen: it shouldn’t work; it just about does. Elsewhere on the menu, alert to American cuisine’s insistence that bacon be a sweet item, we steered clear of something named Bacon & Eggs – though I now rather wish we’d braved it.
The West Village always has that air of being bedizened with strings of low-watt fairy lights strung across its quiet avenues, even on a night when rain is smirring down and the only lights are from the somnolent gay bar across the street. Inside Recette we were in love. C
Recette, 328 West 12th Street (at Perry St), New York NY 10014
212 414 3000; recettenyc.com