No place better displays the quirky charm of West Village architecture than Café Cluny. Connected by a narrow passageway, the dining rooms are at slightly different elevations, the stamped-tin ceiling rises and falls like a wave, and the place is suffused with parchment-colored evening light. On every wall taxonomic specimens are displayed: an array of electric-blue butterflies here, a series of odd fish there, with fern fronds splayed serenely in between. It’s as if your great-great-aunt—the one who worked for National Geographic and went on assignment to Borneo and the Arctic—had just left the room.
Famous for its fragrant roast chicken and lush hamburgers, Café Cluny motored along for the past five years as an upscale comfort-food café at the cobbled corner of West 12th and West 4th streets. Then, three months ago, the restaurant shocked everyone by hiring Phillip Kirschen-Clark as its chef. New Yorkers first became aware of him when he did wonderful things with only a pair of hot plates at Jimmy’s No. 43 in 2007. He was also into pickling things that ran from the usual baby cukes and radishes to the more radical cherries, pears, and brussels sprouts. Eventually, he ended up at Vandaag, where his reinterpretation of Dutch and Scandinavian cuisine brought a breath of oxygenated air to the East Village. It’s a kick watching him tackle the well-scrubbed West Village crowd, dotted with three-piece suits and hoodies from Wellesley and Wesleyan.
His assignment was to keep the core of the crowd-pleasing old menu while simultaneously subverting it. For this wildly creative chef, that’s how you spell fun. It’s been a pleasure observing from the sidelines as the menu has been tweaked little by little. At every visit I asked the waitstaff—nattily attired like French sailors in white blouses with horizontal navy stripes—what’s new on the menu? One time it was an heirloom beet salad ($14), showing the chef’s propensity for seasonally available ingredients. It also featured poached pears, candied walnuts, and baby arugula. Little splotches of pink turned out to be ricotta that had been whipped with beet juice into a light dressing—nothing quite like it has graced a salad before.
Kirschen-Clark’s innovative take on winter vegetables was borne out by two more appetizers that appeared in ensuing weeks. Ranging in color from orange to deep purple, a carrot salad ($17) arrived stacked helter-skelter into a thicket. Some of the carrots were pickled, some shaved raw. But the most remarkable part was what covered the multihued roots: finely grated foie gras, which began to melt and trickle as the dining room’s warm breezes played over it. Equally impressive was the artichokes barigoule that departed from its French prototype by featuring white baby radishes instead of mushrooms—the crunchy rinds miraculously separated and served raw, each cradling a miniature pea shoot, and the hearts steamed into creamy softness. Liquid white miso streamed in the bowl beneath this dissertation on winter earthiness.
There were missteps, too, most often expressed as specials that never made it onto the regular menu. A salad of frisée dotted with snails found the rubbery garden pests tumbling off the branches and getting lost underneath. Lamb ribs in a thin gravy lightly tasting of chocolate were neither sufficiently Mexican nor sufficiently tasty enough. But most of the new dishes in this laboratory of menu formation were spot-on: Homemade mozzarella accompanied by toasts smeared with mellow black garlic, alongside pickled pink radishes and shredded chiles, was just the sort of thing you want to savor as a shared starter or luncheon main course.
Soon radical entrées were making their way out of the kitchen as well. An asparagus risotto ($23) arrived topped with a poached egg, the rice pungent with tarragon’s licoricey bite, while low-on-flavor lemon sole ($27) actually tasted like fish for a change, underpinned with a milder celery purée flecked with more of the same stalk chopped. The best main course is one of the new ones: Cavatelli that look like little canoes propel through a lobster bisque among looming islands of lobster meat. The rich sauce tastes wonderfully of parmesan, and then the scallions kick in, lashing your tongue with the verdant promise of spring. Even the old warhorses of the menu seem to be getting better: The hamburger ($20) bursts with juices, engulfed in gruyère, bravely wearing a pair of crossed bacon strips on its breast like a field marshal in a lost and forgotten war. This one, however, is being won.