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Running a restaurant is one of the most difficult ways to make a living, and anybody who goes to eat at a relatively new place—one that’s been open for less than, say, two months—should go in a forgiving mood. The server isn’t familiar with a certain dish, fine. The food takes a little longer to arrive than usual, OK. A general lack of polish can be forgiven—basically, any new restaurant that’s making a good-faith effort should get a few mulligans here and there. It’s less forgivable when a server treats you as if you are her high school algebra teacher, and she, like, didn’t do the homework. As portraits of how to open a restaurant gracefully, and a cautionary tale of how not to do so, two new gastropubs on the Lower East Side—British spot the Clerkenwell and Scandinavian-inflected White Slab Palace—are a study in contrasts.
White Slab Palace is the newest spot from the couple who owned the dearly departed Good World Bar. The place is ambitious: specialty cocktails (priced $9–$15), some with Swedish accents—such as a gin martini that’s garnished with a whole, bright-eyed, cured anchovy—and a long menu that includes a raw bar, Scandinavian appetizers ($5–$9), “middles” ($7–$14), and mains ($14–$28). The menu is a good read, full of things that sound delicious, like fried salt-whipped cod balls and spicy lamb pelmeni (dumplings). But the feel of White Slab Palace is decidedly aloof, cultivating an air that implies that you should feel lucky just to be there.
Two friends and I arrived one Wednesday night at 7:30 to find that the menus for the evening (the offerings change often) had not yet been printed. We sat down anyway, and looked at the cocktail list. When the menus finally arrived, we were only allotted one. After a lengthy wait, our server finally slouched prettily over to take our order. As her eyes glazed over and she slumped ever more prettily, we communicated, with great effort, that we would like drinks and some food. There was one menu item in Swedish that she didn’t know (fine), and she said she would go find out what it was. We basically never saw her again.
But one bad server does not a bad restaurant make. By the time we had been at our precariously wobbly, splintery table for 20 minutes or so, the place had filled up. Several other parties ordered food. We waved down the only other waiter, a relatively unfriendly but obviously overworked guy with a sheen of sweat on his face, to see if we could have water. First, he brought two (there were three of us), and then he brought two more. OK. We asked him what the mystery menu item was. He said it was herring. We asked him to put in an order for us. Two hours later, everything else we ordered had made its way to our table, but no herring, and virtually no one else in the dining room had been served at all. We asked him to cancel the herring order. “Oh,” he replied, “sorry, but there are still 13 orders in front of the herring.”
Clearly, something was going very wrong in the kitchen. The menu, enticing as it was, must have been too complicated to execute well. Is there any other reason that, in two hours, exactly 10 plates of food should make it out of the kitchen? I started to worry that the couple next to us would resort to cannibalism. When their clams casino finally arrived, about an hour and a half after they sat down, they had to wave the server down for silverware.
If, for some reason, I found myself forced to return to White Slab Palace, I would be very happy to eat the White Slab fish soup. It was the only truly well-made dish that I sampled there, composed of scallops in the shell, shrimp, and cockles in a beautifully aromatic, concentrated shellfish broth. The White Slab fish burger was fine, featuring a flaky, moist swatch of cod on a roll, smeared with tartar sauce that was zipped up with cornichons and capers. Unfortunately, it was served with parsnip chips fried so badly that they had the texture of wet Styrofoam.
But White Slab’s kitchen mainly struggles with seasoning: A piece of poached halibut had none to speak of, while the lamb pelmeni would have been nice—the dumpling skin was pleasantly slippery and al dente—had it not been so oversalted. The salt-whipped cod balls were crisply fried, but came with a mysterious dipping sauce that seemed to be made of water and a slice of grapefruit. Kyckling klubbor, chicken drumsticks swabbed with a sticky sweet-tart glaze, were pleasant in a junky sort of way, but the sauce saturated the accompanying kale, rendering it sickly.
Our experience at the Clerkenwell was far more straightforward and pleasant. The chef and owners have kept things very simple for the first month: four appetizers, four entrées, and brunch. The owner (who chatted with us, although he didn’t know I was a food writer) said that they’d soon be expanding the menu and adding a cocktail list. It’s smart that they’ve started small, to let the kitchen get up to speed—they have bigger ambitions, but are waiting until they can execute everything well. The prices, about $15 for a main, are appropriate for the time. The owner has also cultivated a friendly atmosphere about the place, so that when we walked in, we were greeted warmly, given water, and, in good time, asked what we would like to order. Simple.
The food is classic British gastropub. The crispy smoked-haddock fish cake, slathered with zippy horseradish cream, was particularly tasty, as was the soup of the day: pea-leek with a single oyster floating in it. The toad in a hole was also done well, composed of a billowy, eggy Yorkshire pudding, about six inches across, cut in half (the hole), and stuffed with two dark, porky sausages (the toads). It was served with buttery mashed potatoes and onion gravy. A fish stick sandwich suffered a bit from dry sliced bread, but made up for it with a gorgeously crisp golden coating on the fish sticks.
When money is tight, it’s off-putting to walk into a not-inexpensive restaurant and be made to feel like someone is doing you a favor by exchanging your genuine American currency for food and drink. That attitude seems dated now. There is no question that opening a restaurant is hard, and mistakes are inevitable. But most people aren’t out to criticize—a friendly server and a skilled hand with the salt go a long way.