On a quiet corner of the West Village, Recette’s windows glow warmly on a winter’s night, drawing us in like tourists to Magnolia Bakery. Recette is an easeful place, with a short bar near the open kitchen and a dozen or so tables slotted into the small room—the very picture of a neighborhood restaurant. Snag a good table overlooking the street, and watch people trotting home from work, leaning against winds off the Hudson, or taking delighted dogs outside to pee. Your fellow eaters, some seated close enough for excellent eavesdropping, are generally youngish, good-looking types who talk a bit louder after their second glass of Primitivo.
So why did we leave oddly deflated? Recette shows plenty of skill, but feels weirdly impersonal, like a pitch-perfect model home that no one lives in. That’s not to say there isn’t pleasure to be had or talent to be recognized in chef Jesse Schenker’s new American food. It’s in the uncanny gush of roasted foie gras; in the finely honed sharpness of arugula, hazelnuts, and ricotta salata; in the rich wiggle of a gelatinous slice of headcheese with zingy mustard. And Christina Lee’s desserts are delicious. Still, you’ve seen all of this before: Parts of the menu read more like a collection of buzzwords than a vision. And if you go to Recette hungry, you may need to spend quite a lot of money to get full.
Recette, which means “recipe” in French, started as Schenker’s private dining club, run out of East Harlem’s Savoy Bakery with Savoy’s owner, Brian Ghaw, and Lee, a former Per Se pastry chef. By all accounts, it was a popular venture, but because Schenker had to buy the ingredients at retail, and could only accommodate a handful of diners, prices were high: between $135 and $210 per person. In a January interview with the Voice‘s food blog, Fork in the Road, Schenker said that he’d always planned to go public eventually, in part because he wanted to offer a more affordable, flexible menu.
“If they want a five-course, 10-course tasting, they can,” Schenker said, referring to Recette. “If they want olives and a piece of branzino, they can. It’s completely up to the diner.” Indeed, the menu states that the dishes are served in a “generous tasting portion,” although “generous” can be accurately applied only to some items and not to others. And the dishes range from $10 to $23, averaging $15.50—a 10-course tasting menu would likely run you around $160 before wine, tax, or tip. By comparison, the tasting menu at Jean Georges costs $148, plus you get a padded chair. To use another metric, for $16 you can have an entire plate of very nice bucatini all’Amatriciana at Danny Meyer’s Maialino. Recette’s prices are not unprecedented—they’re just not a good value, even by fine-dining standards.
On the bright side, every dish I tasted (I tried all but three) was extremely well-conceived; each showed a keen, formal knack for balancing textures and flavors, and all were plated in architectural presentations that some may find fussy but others artful.
Schenker is especially adept with unctuous meats. Case in point: a rectangular slab of pork belly, sticky with a caramel-sherry glaze. It’s gorgeously tender and, unlike most pork belly, lean enough that you can actually enjoy the thin striations of fat without feeling you have a mouthful of cellulite. Two tempura rock shrimp perch on top of the pork, joined by tiny baby turnips. A roll-up of duck carpaccio filled with silken chicken-liver mousse is just as delicious as it sounds, but it costs $12 for a cigarillo-size portion.
The kitchen deploys classic French techniques to good effect. The lobe of foie gras is a treat, glazed with fig jam and served with fine-crumbed poppy-seed sablé, a take on the French butter cookie. Best of all is a simple sweetbreads meunière—the glands dredged in flour, sizzled till crisp, and sauced with brown butter, lemon, capers, and parsley. It’s just right: the lemon and capers cutting through the toasty richness of the butter and sweetbreads. An agreeably fatty, Gallic tête de cochon comes with its antidotes: tart cornichons, grain mustard, and pickled turnips.
Then there are two very successful fish dishes—ocean trout with a ragout of cabbage and bacon, and crisp-skinned branzino with lentils and massively buttered turnip purée. But a paper-thin slice of hamachi crudo with a dab of sea urchin and a few precious micro-mache leaves was less substantial than a single piece of sushi and cost $15.
Recette is a puzzle. The cooking is excellent, but its prices and fussiness leave me cold and seem discordant with the informal setting. Maybe this is a deficiency on my part. But in a city where Daniel Boulud makes burgers and hot dogs, and the over-$35 main dish is becoming (thankfully) rare, it’s hard to see the sense in opening a comfortable West Village restaurant and charging $15 for plates that resemble amuse-bouche. The era of the conspicuously expensive neighborhood restaurant could well be over, gone the way of retirement and the no-money-down mortgage. But at Recette, the bubble lives on.