Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bits & Morsels dines at Saxon and Parole

Saxon and Parole.
The Connoisseur and the Libertine dine at
Saxon and Parole

This week, I went on a simulated "first date" with my close friend Keenan Reilly. Our destination? A new restaurant on the downtown scene, Saxon and Parole (316 Bowery at Bleecker, 212.254.0350). Herein are both of our impressions, together with our first date dos and don'ts.


It is a New York rite of passage to try and (ultimately) fail at snagging a Thursday evening prime-time reservation for two at a highly publicized restaurant on the second day of its opening. When you speak to the hostess she will tell you “we are all booked for the next month." If you drop a name and then casually beg for a table, she will most likely say, “we have one table at 6pm and another at 11pm,” both of which, as any born and bred New Yorker knows, is undesirable.

So you give up and try your cards again ... and again ... and yet again. And eventually, after much sacrifice and years of self-defeat, you get that table. The first booth in the corner with unobstructed views of both the bar and dining room. Ah, that ornery routine of persistence, rejection, and eventual acceptance was well worth the wait.
Saxon and Parole main dining room.
Open a little over a week, Saxon & Parole is the hot table right now in New York City. At first glance, it is meant for the all-American (albeit civilized) male. This is no surprise having been conceived by the AvroKO team (Double Crown, Beuaty & Essex, The Monday Room, etc.). Adam Farmerie and Co. have stripped the industrial space of its colonial/asian-themed elements and replaced it with a classic American motif and southern charm.

The horse and bourbon design is all around, starting with warm light fixtures which illuminate the walls and hanging horse portraits, bottles of the restaurant’s Parole brand of bourbon, a mirage of a working fireplace, and different rooms with long banquettes and dark leather booths with white table-cloths.

Salmon tartare.
The menu is dapper, too. The wine list is prodigious, but I left the decision to Keenan who chose a Pio Cesare 2009 Barbera d’alba, which paired nicely with all of our dishes.

At this point, it’s hard to find a chef in downtown New York who isn’t doing some version of All-American comfort food. Hence, there’s nothing very original about Saxon & Parole's menu. Here you have the cliched oyster selection (or what Brad Farmerie coins “Aquatic Delights”), the characteristic charcuterie and local cheese list, appetizers emphasizing predictable items like the salmon tartare, beet salad, and Prince Edward Island mussels; and conventional all-American entrees ranging from a burger to pork chops to steak to roasted branzino to a whole Maine Lobster.

But what places Saxon & Parole on a higher playing field is the clever flavor combinations within each dish; a global twist if you may. A good example is in the hand-cut salmon tartare. The addition of fried capers, roasted peppers, and soft boiled egg turn the dish into something like a delicious fried rice. The entree transports us to New England with a light and delicate grilled and chilled tuna salad with baby romaine lettuce, pickled hearts of palm, and green beans drizzled with a horseradish dressing. Then on to New Orleans thanks to a cauliflower dish topped with a crunchy gruyere gratin.

The service at Saxon & Parole is warm and efficient and the overall vibe is unpretentious and comfortable; something new to AvroKO.
Grilled and chilled tuna salad. Cauliflower with gruyere gratin.

Needless to say this is not AvroKo's most aesthetically charming establishment. The ambiance (pseudo-Francophile meets horse lover?) is muddled by the 1950's era doo-wop soundtrack and an overwhelming number of “just removed our ties” average looking men.

Horsey decor at Saxon and Parole.
I understand the area has been aggressively gentrified (I live down the street) but this is the Bowery, and the restaurant feels out of place.

When I look past the aesthetics, Brad Farmerie’s influence sparks a bit of glory on the plate and in the glass. His musings at the Monday Room have blessed him with an understanding of how to create a balanced wine list. The cellar, like the menu, ensures there is something for everyone.

Without knowing what to expect from the food or having any understanding of Erin's palate, I ordered the Pio Cesare 2009 Barbera d’alba. My selection was an admittedly safe choice. Lush plum and subtle black currant express themselves immediately, followed by the welcome addition of spiced tobacco. The wine proved apropos.

Brad’s abilities in the kitchen are somewhat stifled by the decision to create a “safer” concept than the space’s previous tenant. Take their bread and butter. Two excellent butter options are presented, one of which is foie gras infused; but sadly, it is paired with a tawdry sourdough roll.

The menu reads like an aggregation of the latest New York restaurant trends. A full raw bar is always a positive, but hopefully they pare down the offerings and focus on their strengths in the coming months.
Pio Cesare 2009 Barbera d’alba. Prince Edward Island mussels.
Our waiter was exceptional and delivered our dishes in the perfect order and at the appropriate time. Mr. Farmerie truly helms some of the tightest ships on the island. In terms of the food, I can’t say enough about the seafood, especially the salmon tartare. Though tartars have a tendency to be a bit mundane, Saxon and Parole’s is anything but. I am actually unsure of the composition beyond buttery fresh salmon and raw quail egg, yet the flavor profile was reminiscent of the indulgent egg yolk fried rice ubiquitous at Americanized Japanese steak houses of my youth.

This may sound off-putting to some, but those who know what I’m talking about will pine for this dish.

After comparing notes, we realized there should be a Please and Please Don’t set of rules when on a dinner date ...


Please: Choose the restaurant. Your choice says a lot about YOU.
Please Don’t: Choose the restaurant where you bring every first date. When the host knows your name and has “your” table, it’s not a turn on. And don’t choose the restaurant right next to your apartment. We know where you want to take this date after dinner.
Please: Know something ... anything about wine, take charge, and order. Tip: pick one or two reds from a offbeat region you have traveled to. You always get points for being unique.
Please Don’t: pretend you are well-versed in wine knowledge ... unless you’re a Sommelier.
Please Don’t: check your phone during drinks or dinner. We know your job is really stressful ... but it can wait.
Please: Share at least an appetizer. Take charge and suggest a few interesting dishes. You were given the gift of imagination. Now use it.
Please Don’t: Order anything with the words burger, sausage or wurst in it ... at least until you get to date 2 or 3.
Please: Tell us all about yourself. Wit goes a long way.
Please Don’t: tell us about your weaknesses, illnesses, ex(s), or what’s in your bank account.
Please: Listen and look at us while we are talking. Even if you have no interest in what we have to say, pretend to care. It will pay off later in the evening ... when you do care.
Please Don’t: Talk over us. You may think that whatever you have to say is a lot more interesting than the subject at hand, but it's probably not.
Please: Suggest to share a dessert or two.
Please: Offer to pay. While our offer to go dutch may seem tempting, if you accept, don’t plan on a second date.


Please: Ask me to select a bottle of wine
Please Don’t: pretend you are an Oenophile.
Please: Let me know what type of literature, film, art, theatre, music or other cultural interests that keep your attention.
Please Don’t: Complain to me about work, admit you watch reality television, tell me horror stories of past relationships, or order a vodka soda.
Please: Ask me what inspires me.
Please Don’t: Interrupt me with a pointless anecdote of something forgettable that happened to you and a co-worker/friend today.
Please: Be adventurous with your order, and accept a bite of my dishes even if you are not normally a person who leans towards exotic flavors.
Please Don’t: Insist we order two desserts, I don’t want another.
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