Light, fresh, and playful food defies expectations with startling flavor at this East Village hotspot. Take a vegetarian or a girl who likes to pretend to eat healthy here on a date, and you'll change all the expectations she has about you, too.
When I first think about food and drink served at one of André Balazs' Standard Hotels, I cringe. I picture an overhyped scene full of Euro bankers who are in from out of town and trying to be seen by women who go out to dinner in Herve Leger dresses as they have bottle service brought over to their table at 10 PM by dancers on an inflatable motorcycle. What I do not picture is Narcissa, a truly farm-to-table, vegetable-focused, New American restaurant led by Dovetail chef John Fraser.
And yet here Narcissa is, tucked into the ground floor of the Standard in the East Village, surprising all of us with a menu full of powerfully flavored vegetables and roots that reveal a little bit of Mr. Fraser's California heritage.
Indeed, the cooking at Narcissa, named after a beauty of a cow on André Balazs' private farm a few hours north of the city, manages to showcase the refinement of Mr. Fraser's skills while maintaining a relaxed style accessible to the restaurant's many varied patrons. This light, playful mode of cooking is particularly elegant in what is undoubtedly the most successful dish on the menu, the Carrots Wellington. Carrots have never shined so brightly or cleanly in this vegetarian take on the original, with salt-cured roasted carrots wrapped in sweet, crispy puff pastry and balanced by bluefoot mushrooms, sunchokes, and gremolata. The carrots themselves are tender with a bite, held together by a dark walnut paste that adds a subtle, nutty depth in the background of the gloriously earthy root vegetable.
Seasonal, local ingredients also shine in the Lacquered Duck Breast with spring onions, creamed turnips, and a sour cherry jus that beautifully highlights one of the most interesting treatments of duck skin I've seen lately. The skin is bewilderingly thick, crispy, sweet, and spicy all at once, framing a succulent and expertly-cooked piece of meat. If you're a vegetarian embracing they bounty of options at Narcissa, you might still regret not being able to try this fine duck.
For the appetizers, however, a few flaws in the options that rely too much on meat and seafood prove once again that vegetables are still the loving star at Narcissa. The Raw Tuna in cucumber-basil water with burdock and a jalapeño relish was a major disappointment, with flavors that struggled to define themselves in a pool of virtually flavorless water with a dearth of seasoning.
When I was here for dinner with one of my favorite dining friends, we also shared the fried Manchurian Cauliflower as an appetizer. While we were eager for the gingery, sweet and sour spices right after the lackluster tuna, she noticed that the flavor profile of the sticky sauce was far too strong to be paired as a side with any dish, as it is meant to be on the menu. The generous flavors, while full of rich, savory chili tang, would have simply clashed with almost any of our main courses, except perhaps the fresh Steamed Bass in a curry broth with lentils.
Despite these occasional floundering moves, Narcissa is still a chic, sophisticated presentation of farm-to-table dining that rightly doesn't try to hit you over the head with the concept. With a charming staff and happy couples that seem to be on a date at almost every neighboring table, Narcissa is much more than a trendy hotel restaurant that prioritizes scene over substance, and I will always be grateful for what it has contributed to dining in New York.
Yet I will now always blame Narcissa for changing my expectations each time I walk into another hotel restaurant for dinner and get anything less than fresh, impeccably-sourced vegetables cooked with exemplary skill and passion.