Feast Bungles Group Dining in the East Village
If you've stood with friends and watched a piglet roast over the coals, or passed around a gratin dish so heavy that you sprained a wrist, you've feasted. Its meaning is old and its form isn't fixed, but we all know a feast when we're at one. It involves the sort of joyful and unpretentious eating that predates restaurant culture by thousands of years.
Newly opened Feast in the East Village is a pretty little place geared toward group dining, owned by pals Brian Ghaw, of Harlem's Savoy Bakery, and George Chiang. Christopher Meenan runs the kitchen, which is dedicated to just a few set menus, each one squeezing a bit more food into the old three-course prix-fixe format (eight savory dishes and one dessert, served in three waves). In early spring, there were three "feasts" themed by ingredient, including a scallop ($52), vegetarian ($38), and a nose-to-tail lamb ($48), which sounded like the sort of thing that would fog this critic's glasses.
"Nose-to-tail" is shorthand for a cook's promise to not waste a single thing, to find what's valuable in every ugly bit of an animal and deliver it to you transformed and beautiful. I imagined tripe, liver, and tongue, elevated odds and ends like heart and kidney. Unfortunately, Feast uses the term a bit loosely—the menu didn't include offal. In fact, the lamb feast is a series of tiny plates, often prepared in single-size portions, where the meat appears sanitized as if to please a group of finicky wedding guests rather than actual food lovers. The rack of lamb is a lollipop, as the horrifying trick was once called—a lone medallion of meat, stripped of any fat that might have reinforced its character. It is impaled with a pristine white bone to complete the lamb-chop illusion, and cooked through. This "rack of lamb" looks like a two-bite appetizer you'd wash down with cold champagne at a holiday cocktail party, and it tastes like one, too. Dry, bloodless, and underseasoned, it whiffs of catering, where cooks must value efficiency of presentation and production over everything else.
At the end of April, a vegetarian friend I'd brought along to Feast wondered why winter vegetables were still the only kind on the menu—not a slender spring leek or lovely pocked morel in sight. A server promised they'd change over in the next week or two as she set down the "baby vegetable garden"—a single minuscule carrot, shriveled and suspended in a glass test tube filled with olives and crème fraîche, a grim hors d'oeuvre experiment gone wrong. Even at fine-dining restaurants, the test tube can be a hard sell, but here, next to a rustic mushroom tart and a basket of fried beets, it really didn't make sense, nor did it feel remotely feast-like.
There's certainly room for successful large-format dining in New York (Momofuku's Ssäm Bar is particularly good at it—candied pork shoulder is the star of its Korean bo ssäm meal, a family-style tradition that translates well to a modern restaurant setting). Feast's menus would be better off without the pretension and frills, constructed around the stronger dishes—like the fresh pasta filled with lamb shank and preserved lemon. If the kitchen could turn its attention to technique and execution, perhaps on fewer dishes prepared with more thought to how they all fit together, it could be a good place to celebrate the end of a tough work week among friends.
The space is charming and comfortable—a vintage tin watering can full of wildflowers here, an ice box topped with black-and-white photographs there, thoughtful shelving for purses and coats—and service tends to be friendly. There are small tables along the length of the dining room and one communal table by the kitchen, and the place is generally full with birthday celebrations, young groups of coworkers, and all the rest who come en masse to the East Village to drink and to dine. But if you find yourself at that communal table with a bunch of strangers and a mini tartlet, it can sometimes feel as if you've crashed the wrong wedding.
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