Exchange Alley: The Big Easy Apple
The best thing about a pot of jambalaya, whether it's made with a box of Uncle Ben's or a bag of Southern long-grain, is the leftovers. The next day, the flavors have deepened. Balled up and fried, the meat-studded, stock-soaked rice gains texture, too. At Exchange Alley in the East Village, the fried jambalaya ($8) is jeweled with Andouille sausage and Tasso ham, served with an ugly, delicious gravy that takes a cue from dirty rice—lumpy with liver and meat, its flavors built on the deep, careful browning of flour, butter, and bones.
A few other dishes drawl of the South. Blistered shisito peppers come with cubes of fresh watermelon pickle. Young okra are pickled before they're fried ($6), and though their crusts are thick, they're small and tender, shot through with just a thread of the snotty, vegetal mucilage that okra-haters love to hate. A fat, house-made blood sausage ($8) is a French-style pudding, pulled from its casing and deep fried. The filling of oat-thickened pig's blood turns wonderfully sweet and soft with a delicate crumb. It could stand in for cake at a gothic winter wedding.
Chef and co-owner Paul Gerard is from Brooklyn, but went to New Orleans in the early '90s, where he cooked for chef Susan Spicer at Bayona, the graceful French Quarter institution, still in operation. Working the line beside him were Donald Link and John Harris, who went on to bring attention to modern Southern cuisine with their own restaurants. Gerard left the city just a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit, and Harris is a partner now at Exchange Alley.
Billy Gilroy of Employees Only helped Gerard create an elegantly cluttered dining room. The walls are crowded with framed photographs of Old Hollywood actors, American presidents, and glamorous mobsters. Eccentric light bulbs cling to the low, wood-paneled ceiling, and the whole room glows with candles. A large table in the back, outfitted with a massive candelabra, is set for a big group or several small ones, depending on the evening. But the kitchen is a trench. Tight, hot, impossible, tucked away beside the bar. A long painting of a knife, by Steve Ellis, hangs above the shelves full of identical, beat-up steel pans. There's no room for servers in the kitchen, so they reach the dishwasher through a wee sliding window in the wall—it seems like the crew at Exchange Alley knows how to work with what they've got.
Never mind that there's no liquor license yet: A clever cocktail list finds a loophole with soju, sake, beer, and sherry. There's a roughness around the edges here that some diners will find refreshing, though others will think it silly that so many dishes are garnished with sliced red chiles. Although the food can be satisfying, it can be clumsy as well. As if pushed out of the kitchen too fast, slices of seared hanger steak ($17) were still cold inside—blue and purple as a fresh bruise. A lamb chop ($26), on the other hand, had gone too far and was barely blushing. Pastas that aren't made in-house come from Brooklyn-based Sfoglini, like the baked radiatore ($16) that promised the richness and fat of a porky ragu, but turned out to be lean, quiet, and underseasoned.
Similar to the clientele, the staff is young and stylish, though not obnoxious. Although they aren't especially attentive, one gets the sense they really want to be here, that they care about you having a good time. A waiter in a dramatic sweater removed the cowl component to show a curious diner how it worked. "It's a snood!" And one server, a musician, got chatty about the band we were discussing (they shared a manager).
"It doesn't look like it," he told us, "but there's a super-cute garden back there." We saw only shadows and a big chest freezer, but sure enough, Exchange Alley's backyard is planted with chiles, okra, tomatoes, and kale, and some grapevines that will perhaps begin to fruit next year. It's not producing enough to supply the kitchen, but it's the beginning of something good.
Ed. note: Exchange Alley is in the East Village, which has been without power since Hurricane Sandy hit New York. Visit our blog to see how they're doing right now.
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