Named after a haunting 1940s showtune, the East Village’s Old Devil Moon mounted a menu of what might be called “transgressional cuisine”—things that even the most brazen junk-food addict would concede are not particularly good for you, like Cajun nachos and chicken-fried tofu. When Northern Spy replaced it last November, it was as if the Healthy and Sustainable Fairy had descended from a recycled-water cloud, and affected the substitution with a flick of her wand. The new restaurant is aptly named after an upstate apple descended from ancient heirloom stocks. (By contrast, the owners of Braeburn, another “market-driven” establishment, blew it by picking a modern apple from New Zealand.)
Enter the Spy’s intimate space and find it, too, transformed from the Devil days: Now it’s all tongue-and-groove board, sturdy park benches, antique mirrors, repurposed chairs, and green-blue wallpapers that add a Martha Stewart touch to the décor. Further demonstrating its tendencies, the restaurant features a food market in the rear, where—this beingwinter—your locally sourced choices are restricted to jams and jellies, little tubs of yogurt, granolas, pickles, and caramels made by hand in Brooklyn.
The simple Bobo Farms chicken is one of the most satisfying dishes on Northern Spy’s menu, hoisting its well-browned wing skyward in a salute to humane production methods. At $15, the price is right, too, though the first time my date and I ate it, we wished it were sided with mashed potatoes rather than a massive pile of sautéed onions dotted with bacon. The chef must have partly agreed, since on a second try, the bird came with excellent collard greens instead—but still no carbs. Other full-blown entrées include a large warm salad of Long Island squid ($13) tossed with navy beans and mussels. Oil poaching has rendered the rings shrunken and a bit tough, but here that adds to the wild riot of jubilant textures.
Oddly, the restaurant rejects beef outright, but features a fair amount of pork, including a single daily entrée (recently, braised pork belly on a bed of lentils), a terrine or two, and glorious chunks of smoky bacon that can appear almost anywhere. Somewhat subversively, the daily terrine ($12) was recently headcheese, made in-house and quite splendid in a slippery sort of way. Part of the locavoric imperative, by the way, is to pursue “nose to tail eating,” ensuring that an animal that has been butchered is fully and faithfully used. Other organ-meat specials are offered from time to time, including a wonderful appetizer of breaded and fried gizzards, paired with way-garlicky aioli. I still can’t figure out how they made tough chicken gizzards so tender.
In the frigid months, a local and sustainable restaurant needs to go crazy with grains. Here, the currently fashionable freekeh—lightly toasted green wheat—is made into a faux risotto with winter squashes and mascarpone. The menu also showcases, in various guises, quinoa, polenta, wild rice, and wheatberries, the latter tossed in a salad with pickled shallots and mint, a flavor combo that made us grimace and reach for our water glasses. Every experiment at Northern Spy doesn’t necessarily end well, but you’ve got to give the restaurant credit for trying.
The prices on the menu often seem two or three dollars cheaper than you might have expected, encouraging you to become a regular. In addition to the entrées, leaf salads, and composed salads of grains and doughty root vegetables, there’s a sandwich menu that knocks down the price point even further. The mushroom sandwich ($10) is a particular joy, depositing sautéed ‘shrooms, potato confit, and “clothbound cheddar” (what, no paperback yet?) in a goodly length of baguette. The drink selection features locally brewed drafts; a handful of wines, among them a couple of decent bottles below $30; and, best of all, a sparkling cider made in Ithaca from Northern Spy apples, which packs the alcoholic punch of a white wine. Lately, there’s been an apple pie for dessert made with—what else?—Northern Spys.
If the food has one fault, it’s a certain blandness that suffuses many of the dishes. It reminded me of a recent meal I ate at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’s restaurant in Berkeley, California, where the natural savor of fresh ingredients is often considered flavor enough. Indeed, chef Nathan Foot and his business partner Christophe Hille migrated here from the Bay Area, and their menu may represent the most faithful evocation of the northern California farm-to-table ethos yet seen in New York. Hey, maybe they should have called the place Alice’s Restaurant.