I’ve been following April Bloomfield since she cooked Tuscan at the River Café in London. Six years ago, the English chef weighed anchor and crossed the Atlantic to helm the Spotted Pig in the West Village, whipping up an odd but effective combo of Central Italian fare and Brit pub grub. Late in 2008, she added the John Dory to her list of culinary successes, a posh Chelsea seafood spot that closed unexpectedly a few months ago for reasons that still remain shrouded in mystery.
The Breslin is her latest vessel, and, while the Spotted Pig was decorated with dozens of pig statuettes, and the John Dory with entire schools of multi-hued fish, the Breslin features pastoral paintings of cows, framed as if they were long-lost relatives. Located cheek-by-jowl with the wildly popular Stumptown Coffee, the restaurant nestles next to the lobby of the Ace Hotel, a former SRO hostelry turned trendy playground in Manhattan’s gritty wholesale district. The Breslin comprises a darkened warren of rooms with an open kitchen gleaming at one end, casting light on the upturned faces of foodies who can’t wait to graze on Bloomfield’s latest inventions, and foreign travelers who seem frankly confused by the menu choices.
While the Spotted Pig groped for Central Italian inspiration, and the John Dory for Spanish, the Breslin gropes British chef Heston Blumenthal, whose organ-intensive menu at the Fat Duck has garnered international praise. Thus one of Bloomfield’s most memorable starters is fried head cheese ($7). Taking the gelatinous mix of pig-head parts to a richer level than it’s ever been before, she cuts a pig’s head terrine into dice, then deep-fries it. The resultant crisp and oozy cubes come displayed on a gravel of chopped egg whites, with smears of mustardy gribiche sauce here and there.
In the same territory lies a thick soup of bone marrow and caramelized onions ($10), balancing a long Parmesan crouton on top, like a rickety bridge over a potentially dangerous culinary chasm. Somewhat disappointingly, the potage is a dead ringer for French onion soup. Her most strange and assertive venture into variety meat territory is the stuffed pig’s foot for two ($32). The entrée proves to be more than 12 inches in length, with the unctuous forcemeat formed into what appears to be a porcine foreleg. Order it and you’re likely to conclude that no two humans could possibly eat so much gelatin and fat, though individual bites can be delicious. One day, there was a special of blood sausage, which hid in a thicket of greens, tasting much more like English blood pudding than French boudin noir, but estimable nonetheless in its loamy blandness.
There are relatively normal things on the menu, too, including a luscious lamb burger ($17) that’s so good, I tried it three times. The perfect puck of moist pink meat rides high on an outlandishly puffy bun, accompanied by an excellent cumin mayo. You won’t know whether to spread the limited supply of mayo on the burger — where it plays second fiddle to a barrage of amazing flavors — or save it to dip the French fries in. Described on the menu as “thrice cooked,” these fries handily outmaneuver the Belgian variety (which are only cooked twice), with an interior rendered something like a baked potato, and an exterior fried brittle and sienna-colored. Triple yum!
Other things I liked: a raw oyster service tendered with a mignonette incorporating pickle juice; a sea bass filet ($29) decorated with sour fried trevise, which acted as a sympathy card for the dear-departed John Dory; a bowl of wonderful curried mussels; and a braised beef shin in midnight-brown gravy, which loomed up like a tower in The Lord of the Rings. The dish seemed an inspired reconfiguration of some half-remembered British public school dining-room classic. But this sort of comfort food can also run off-course at the Breslin. Though the tongue sandwich served on a baguette and offered only at lunch was fine in a homely and un-nuanced sort of way, the awful, over-minted lentil soup that came alongside constituted — dare I say it — a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal of the sandwich.
The menu abounds in bar snacks, too, and here the terrain becomes even stranger. One is invited to wash down, with a selection from the locavoric beer list, the likes of Scotch eggs (deep-fried boiled eggs), fried pork rinds, “scrumpets” (strips of lamb breaded and deep-fried), fried peanuts, and malt-vinegar potato “crisps.” If you sense a pattern here, you’re correct: At the Breslin, like Brueghelian souls in torment, you can never escape the fryer for very long.