August in July


The menu reads like a greatest hits of European peasant fare—the kind of salty, greasy, garlicky food you remember from your Spanish or Italian vacation. Meanwhile, the business card establishes a medieval theme, featuring an antique woodcut of a man in a doublet and knickers thrusting birds into a flaming oven. But traipsing past August late in July, I was nearly scared away by the menu, which seemed like heavy winter food. I ventured in anyway. The place was packed to the gills, and so was the backyard garden, a legacy of former tenant Picasso Café, now glassed in and planted with herbs. Wall treatments line the main dining room, resembling—if you squint a bit—souls in hell grasping their way up a burning mountain.

The dining room’s focus is a beehive oven that might have been imported brick by brick from the Mediterranean. And there are serious stacks of hardwood in the basement to fuel it, enough to put local barbecue joints to shame. The smoky oven propels August’s most spectacular dishes. There’s a boned guinea hen roasted “il mattone” ($20)—under a brick, then colorfully heaped with yellow wax beans, green broad beans, and haricots verts smeared with roasted tomato and bread crumbs. Rarely seen in Gotham, the runty bird is a miracle of crisp charred skin and dark tasty flesh. Also tasting markedly of smoke is a braised lamb shoulder ($22) smothered in a dice of eggplant and summer squash. “This really reminds me of lamb from the next farm over,” was the compliment lavished on it by a Welsh friend who came to dinner one evening. On the appetizer side lurks malfatti ($7), Tuscan ricotta-and-spinach dumplings that announce themselves by sizzling in an iron crock as they’re carried to the table, and also a modest-but-miraculous dish of grilled spring onions in Spanish romescu sauce, packing a megaton garlic wallop.

I can’t for the life of me think of much I didn’t like about August. Necessary as it is to producing the delicious food, the oven becomes a liability to the backyard, where the radiating rear end cooks the customers as well as the food. Find a remedy in the cooling grape gazpacho ($9), thickened in the ancient Andalusian manner with bread crumbs. The chef even peels the green grapes that decorate the surface. Another ovenless dish I particularly enjoyed was spaghetti carbonara, cheesy with pecorino and dotted with pancetta. As luck would have it, I’d tasted the same dish a few days earlier at Al Moro, a restaurant near Rome’s Trevi Fountain that claims to have invented it in the 1930s. Though lacking the enriching power of egg yolk, the Bleecker Street version is every bit as tasty.

August is also one of the few restaurants at its price level where desserts are made on the premises, rather than being trucked in. The apricot tart is prodigal, a rustic mess of dough carelessly massed around fresh fruit and hosed with granular sugar. The Welsh girl—who turned out to be a chocoholic—took one bite of her chocolate pot du crème and gasped, it was so rich. Another crowd-pleaser is the trio of ice-cream-stuffed profiteroles finished with chocolate sauce poured ceremoniously from a silver pitcher. A dessert that’s not only good, but eminently summery.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 10, 2004

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