Double Crown: Culinary Empire Building
The financial news was dire, even apocalyptic, all day. But never mind the Four Horsemen—it's time for dinner, so off I trot to Double Crown, a new Bowery restaurant peddling a fantasy-food version of the British Empire. The place is packed, roiling with thirtysomethings in suits, downing cocktails and talking loudly about the fact that they usually eat fluke raw. My friend and I sit down in a very beautiful white-paneled room and look around. Who are these people, and shouldn't they be off selling stocks or something?
Look on the bright side: When empires fall, it's a good excuse to have a cocktail or three. If Double Crown has it right, denizens of the British Empire lounged around guzzling prodigious amounts of gin, and tossing lobes of foie gras into their servants' tandoor ovens. AvroKO, the über-cool design firm that owns the spot, carries off the louche fantasia with flamboyant, knowing skill. Double Crown flits between camp and genuine beauty—unfortunately, the former describes the food, and the latter, the space.
The concept is fun in theory, because a British Empire–themed restaurant can range through much of the world, minus South America. Double Crown focuses on the Asian part of the Empire—India (tandoori foie gras), Singapore (curry laksa), Hong Kong (duck steam bun)—as well as on plenty of crowd-pleasing classic English fare (streaky ham, bangers and mash, pot pie).
At first glance, the menu is enormously appealing. There's imagination at work here—vibrant global flavors like fenugreek, pickled lime, star anise, and bushels of chilies deployed in dishes that are heavy on the pork, lamb, duck, and bone marrow. But somehow, none of it tastes quite as good as it ought to. How can lamb and cashew meatballs with lime pickle manage to be boring? Somehow, the kitchen, under executive chef Brad Farmerie, formerly of Public, has found a way.
The first section of the menu is devoted to "hawker-style snacks," referring to the famed Singaporean food vendors. But instead of sate, oyster cakes, or fried noodles, here we find tiny tidbits like raw oysters, fried whitebait, braised pork belly, and pickled watermelon rind. Since the dishes in no way resemble actual hawker snacks, I can't figure out what differentiates them from the starters, except that they're portioned a bit smaller. It seems as if someone decided that the phrase "hawker-style snacks" was a clever gimmick and ran with it.
In any event, the snacks, which are also available at Madam Geneva, Double Crown's adjoining bar, are a motley crew. Of the eight options, the fried whitebait is worth ordering if you like fishy fish. The plate holds a pile of the inch-long pungent specimens, fried whole. Likewise, the small dish of braised pork belly glazed in chile caramel is delicious—it has no business being anything but delicious—and is lent uncommon brightness by the addition of fish sauce, lime, and cilantro.
Pork rillette, on the other hand, is gritty and underseasoned. People, this is a blend of pork and pork fat, and it should taste good. Pigs in a wet blanket (the name does nothing for the appetite) turn out to be sausage-stuffed lychees. Not half bad, although the teensy dish with three little specimens should really be a (free) amuse bouche.
The starter section combines strange bedfellows like endive and Stilton salad and miso-glazed bone marrow. Smoked-mackerel salad comes as a tangle of shredded green apple, cubed boiled egg, and bits of the assertively smoky, salty fish. The miso-glazed bone marrow could hardly be messed up: Split the bone, brush on miso, and serve with brioche. Still, both the mackerel salad and the bone marrow are very worthy snacks.
But sadly, the Singapore laksa is a pale imitation of the real noodle soup, tasting mainly of coconut milk, with none of the dish's deep, rich, spicy funk. It's not unpleasant, but it's not Singapore-style laksa either. The tandoori foie gras torchon involves foie gras, so it can't help but taste great, especially smeared on the walnut bread provided. But I can't figure out what the brown daubs of sweet sauce that garnish the goosey liver have to do with tandoori—certainly, the torchon has never seen the inside of a tandoor.
Main courses are also uneven, although they all sound wonderful. On the better side, we liked the pheasant-and-licorice pot pie, topped with a voluminous, flakey hat of puff pastry. The stew inside is fragrant with licorice and features tender nuggets of pheasant in a rich gravy. Twice-cooked chicken in a sweetish star anise broth benefits from a cap of crispy skin and a mash of pungent raw ginger, garlic, and cilantro.
Things go downhill from there. Lamb meatballs are bouncy, unassuming spheres, and one main-course order will get you three small meatballs for $18. Goan vegetable curry is meager in portion and flavor, composed of a scattering of cubed sweet potatoes in a one-dimensional, tomatoey-tart sauce. Worst of all is the poached fluke over daal (lentils). The fluke is poached in milk and bay leaves, but seems to have never met a grain of salt or any other flavorings. The daal is also undersalted and tastes like someone just threw some lentils in a pot with water and copious amounts of cinnamon.
Even the cocktails seem more like gin-delivery systems than drinks that are meant to taste good. The exception is the house cocktail at Madam Geneva: The bartender mixes up gin, lemon juice, and sugar over ice, and then puts a big dollop of homemade jam on top (try the ginger-fig variety). It turns out that it's oddly pleasant to have jam in your cocktail.
Sometimes, as in the case of Delicatessen, a new restaurant that's known for its scene, you know from the beginning that a place is not about the food. But Double Crown has a real chef and an amazing menu, so the lack of consistent care taken with the food is a real disappointment, and seems like a wasted opportunity.
Meanwhile, the design of the restaurant is spectacular, as you might expect for an eatery owned by a design company. It's all very 19th-century Raj: Old-fashioned ceiling fans run by a belt system whir overhead; elaborately carved stone panels line the walls; white-marble lanterns dangle above the bar. Downstairs, the narrow hall is walled with more stone carvings, so that you feel like you're in a Hindu temple until the tiny slots that say "Vacant" clue you in to the fact that it's the bathroom.
Maybe in a 100 years we'll be flocking to an American-Iraqi tapas bar complete with belly dancers and pretty textiles. And wouldn't that be fun?
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