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Afternoon Delight, Ham and Toast and More at Joseph Leonard

May 8, 2012

Have you ever had one of those meals where everything just seemed almost perfect?  One where you saw through the little imperfections in the dishes and the quirkiness of the cramped restaurant for an experience that you just adored?  I had one of those recently at Joseph Leonard in the West Village.

Joseph Leonard is a sister restaurant of  Jeffrey’s Grocery, a place that I have raved about here and here.  I have constantly heard great things about Joseph Leonard, located literally immediately across the street from Jeffrey’s.  For some reason, it took me a long time before I finally paid this quintessential West Village restaurant a visit (mostly stemming from the fear of long waits that they are known for) and found a new favorite.

The best way to avoid the lines and crowd is to try to grab a seat with a small party for an early weekday dinner.  This is precisely what MD and I did one beautiful Wednesday early May.  In fact, we arrived so early for dinner that we had our pick of seats in this small restaurant.  I have recently started to love eating at the bar, for both the view of the kitchen/bar as well as friendly banter from the bartenders, so that was where we found ourselves at Joseph Leonard.

Two cocktails, Afternoon Delight for me and Tuk, Tuk for MD, kicked off our meal.  Both were delightfully refreshing and whispered notes of summer breeze and poolside afternoons.  A little early in the season but fitting that particular evening as the sun hung around a little longer than usual outside.

The menu seemed simple at first glance but looking a little closer, I found many surprises tucked into simple descriptions of dishes like ham & toast and fried artichokes.  Instead of ordering our own dishes, MD and I decided to split a few appetizers.  The first one was an escargot toast.  A plate of buttery garlicky escargots sat atop grilled baguettes smeared with garlic butter.  Beautiful jewels of salmon roe peeked out from the earthy escargots for a little burst of sea.  While this was absolutely stunning to look at, I found the creme fraiche and butter a little heavy on the palate.

The kitchen nicely split up our next dish, a warm mushroom salad, into two plates.  The frisee leaves had just wilted slightly under the heat of the warm medley of mushroom.  Pickled shallots added a brightness and the salad was finished off with just the right drizzle of anchovy vinaigrette.  This was hands down one of our favorites of the night.

Since MD and I both have a weakness for roasted bone marrow, we couldn’t pass up the ham & toast dish.  As plain as it sounded, this was anything but.  Roasted unctuous bone marrow were smeared onto grilled baguette slices and topped with a sprinkle of capers and parsley.  I found this initially a little underwhelming but when I took a second bite with some of those almost translucent slices of prosciutto, the dish took on a completely new life and I couldn’t get enough.

Our final appetizer actually came from the vegetable section of the menu.  The fried artichokes were served with bright slices of duck prosciutto on top of a thin layer of lemon garlic aioli.  The crunchy baby artichoke hearts and the silky duck prosciutto were just lovely paired together.  And that lemon garlic aioli did not go to waste as we smeared it on bread and handed back a completely clean plate to the waiter.

At this point of the meal, we had managed to strike up a lively conversation with the friendly bartender.  He had generously poured us a sip of the white whiskey from the shelf and enlightened us about the 300 pound whole hog that the chef at Joseph Leonard buys from upstate during the first week of each month.  The kitchen butchers the pig onsite and uses the meat throughout the month and the special that night was a meatball of pork and beef served over creamy polenta and tomato sauce.  As soon as MD heard meatball, I knew we had found our entree.  Even though there was only one meatball, this was not a small dish.  In fact, the solo meatball was so large that it hid a little surprised inside.

Viola!  A beautifully cooked egg with a bright orange yolk was revealed when I cut through the meatball.  The meatball itself was soft and tender, deliciously savory with the creamy buttery polenta.  The crispy garlic bread was just icing on top.

Just as we were rubbing our stomachs satisfyingly from the delicious meal and wrapping up our conversation with the bartender, he slid the tiniest jar of something across the bar.  This, salted caramel pudding, was a gift on the house, he explained as he handed us each a long spoon, just a little something sweet for being first time diners.

The contents of the jar were spilling over the brim of the glass, begging for us to scoop it up into our mouths. There was no way to keep it neat so we both dug in at the same time, spilling the toppings on the counter.  One scoop straight down brought a spoonful of smooth pudding and crushed almonds to my mouth.  The pudding was so rich yet light at the same time, salty and sweet.

When we finally licked the jar clean, we got up and found a small crowd waiting at the door of the restaurant, right on cue for the diner rush.  I was so giddy with my experience here that I can’t wait to go back again soon for another bowl of that meatball and a glass of Afternoon Delight.  I don’t know what it is about Gabriel Stulman’s collection of West Village gems but I fall in love with each one that I try, first Jeffrey’s Grocery and now Joseph Leonard.

Joseph Leonard | 170 Waverly Place, New York, NY 10014 | http://josephleonard.com

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