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Narcissa at the Standard East

August 20, 2014

I don’t even know how many years ago it was but John Fraser had a restaurant on Lafayette in Nolita called What Happens When (three to be exact but it certainly feels like eons ago).  It was an experimental restaurant where everything from the decor to prix fixe menu to the wait staff uniforms changed every month, and I mean everything.  I remember loving the two times I had dined there and how delicious the food had been.  Of course, being in New York, the restaurant came into various troubles including a rather difficult to secure liquor license and was forced to close after only 10 iterations.  The few of us who loved What Happens When lamented its closure and moved on in due time.

Fast forward three years and John Fraser popped up once again on the restaurant scene, this time at the helm at Narcissa at the Standard East Hotel.  The food at Narcissa is categorized as California style, featuring seasonal local ingredients in dishes that emphasize freshness and various cooking techniques.  A quick look at the menu and you will definitely find more similarities to the eclectic local ingredient driven menus found in San Francisco than more thematic menus in New York.  While the eclectic style might work in the kitchen, it fails to wow in the decor.  As much as I love an open air kitchen and an abundance of outdoor seating, the interior felt a bit schizophrenic, not quite succeeding in translating the feeling that the restaurant wanted to convey.

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Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the decor, the food here was successful, in particular the vegetable centric dishes.  One of my favorite appetizers we sampled on our visit was the rotisserie-crisped beets.  Served with a bulgar salad, apples and creamed horseradish, the dish was a wonderful composition of texture and flavors.  I loved how the sweet crisp apples acted as a counterpoint to the earthy rustic beets and how the creamed punchy horseradish played nicely against the chewy bulgar salad.

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The crab salad might sound simple but in the heat of the summer, a light and refreshing appetizer was just what we needed.  Nothing out of the ordinary but a plate of well balanced fresh crab salad mixed with navel orange segments and hearts of palm.  The dish was finished with a sprinkle of hazelnuts for texture.

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Even though the little neck barley risotto had great flavor, something about the texture of risotto made with barley just didn’t work quite right.  Despite my reservations about the texture, the dish redeemed itself with abundance of clams.

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For one of our entrees, we decided to venture out of our comfort zone and try the carrot Wellington.  A playful twist on a rather stale classic from days by gone, Narcissa’s carrot Wellington featured sweet roasted carrots wrapped nicely in a flaky pastry on a bed of earthy mushrooms and sunchokes.  Not bad for a meatless entree.

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The entrees were a sample of global cuisines.  From the 1950s US, we jumped right into a fusion of French and Thai with the steamed black bass.  The perfectly cooked bass sat on top of a bed of French lentils and eggplant.  A smooth creamy curry broth was poured table side in a rather classic flourish.  Light yet flavorful, this was quite a lovely take on Thai curry.

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To supplement the two entrees, we chose a rather simple side, steamed new potatoes with dill butter.  Once again, chef Fraser made the often neglected potatoes sing.  Topped with a garlicky bread crumb topping, these were as addicting if not more so than regular french fries.

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For dessert, we chose the lightest item on the menu, Narcissa’s raspberry and lychee salad.  Fresh raspberries and lychee pieces were topped with an icy granita, mochi pieces, panna cotta and basil seeds.  For the most part, the fruit salad was light and refreshing until I took a bite of the mochi.  Unfortunately, the homemade rice cakes were hardened into unpliable pieces by the cold granita.

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Finally, a piece of pate fruit and chocolate truffles as send offs with our check.  As the seasons change, it will be exciting to see how the menu here evolves.  Much like many places on the West Coast, the focus here is on sourcing local ingredients and creating dishes that let the produce shine.  I think we could use a little more of that in New York once in a while.

Narcissa | 21 Cooper Square, New York, NY 10003 | http://www.narcissarestaurant.com

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