In any artistic medium, the most compelling stories exploit contrast as a narrative device, and Narcissa — John Fraser’s slow-cooked playground in The Standard East Village hotel — is a restaurant cleaved in two. To the right, a dining room adjacent to the host station is a hypnotic sea of dark wood, hard lines, and right angles, which soften under ample sun during the day and glow beneath the room’s dimmed lights in the evening. Down a short corridor to the left, Fraser expedites between two kitchen stations whirring with powerful Rotisol rotisserie ovens that look out onto dining room No. 2, brightly lit and accented in white marble.
For a restaurant named after a cow (albeit a noble bovine from Standard hotelier André Balazs’s farm, Locusts on Hudson in Staatsburg, from which much of the produce, eggs, and dairy are sourced), Narcissa appears almost defiantly modern. You’ll find no obscure agricultural tools or bales of hay at this farm-to-table restaurant. What you will find is plenty of tarted-up vegetables and a parade of fashionable people putting those vegetables into their mouths.
Walk toward Fraser, and you’ll be rewarded with the intoxicating aromas of whatever the flora-loving chef is roasting. Clamped between the grooves of a shallow basket, beets cook until the sugars caramelize into a thick, smoky crust. Broken open, their candy-sweet centers glow ruby red and yield like butter. The supporting cast is familiar (dill, horseradish, pickled cucumber), but the star of the show has never looked better. Sweet potatoes also take a spin in the rotisserie basket, cooked soft and fiery with jerk spice. The fork-tender spuds hide under sweet potato chips, the dirt-grown equivalent to perfect roast chicken sporting crisp skin.
In the six years since he opened Dovetail on the Upper West Side, the California-born chef has continued to search inward while showcasing that exploration on the plate. As he incorporated more vegetables into his diet, Dovetail instituted a vegetarian Monday menu that remains exceedingly popular, though Fraser swears he was unaware of the “Meatless Mondays” trend when making the decision. In between Dovetail and Narcissa, the chef put himself through the wringer with pop-up restaurant What Happens When, a transitory experiment that produced some wonderful meals but whose life was cut short by angry neighbors and State Liquor Authority woes. At Narcissa, he continues to mine his emotional depths, excavating influences from his experiences cooking under Thomas Keller and in France. It’s an approach that complements the time-intensive caretaking of rotisserie cooking.
But while there’s a focus on simplicity and restraint with respect to recipe construction and cooking techniques, many of Fraser’s plates are architectural, and almost all explode with color. There are those beets, along with a muddled bowl of sweet crab, hazelnuts, blood orange, and basil, but this visual flair for the dramatic is best expressed in an entrée of lamb loin medallions cooked to just past rare and coated in parsley and mint. Flanking the lamb is a jumble of pale cauliflower florets, piquillo peppers, and crushed olives sitting in jus, which form an altar out of delicate, trapezoidal spinach pie. Peeking through a canopy of greens, the pie’s burnished crust shines with promise, but cutting into the pastry reveals a soggy bottom.
Swapping cows for carrots in an inspired take on Beef Wellington, the kitchen spackles the orange taproots with a layer of intensely earthy mushroom-sunchoke duxelles, adhering them to their pastry crust. Velvet-smooth sunchoke purée furthers the beefy muskiness, but the meat isn’t missed: The combination feels completely natural. Carrots also show up ensconced in tempura batter and fried to a deep golden brown, which renders their flavor not unlike a corndog.
Cocktails are split into “classic” and “specialty,” but the words seem to mean nothing (a “chic update” of the apple-tini is listed under the classics). My Lucien Gaudin, a Negroni variant named after an early 20th century French Olympic fencer and made with gin, Campari, Cointreau, and dry vermouth, was dry with a lingering citrus depth thanks to those liqueurs.
Citrus features heavily through dessert, with toasted fennel cheesecake accented by grapefruit supremes and translucent ribbons of chartreuse-macerated fennel and an elegant fruit salad of seasonal oranges sitting in bergamot tapioca curd and garnished with candied orange peels, rose petal jam, and orange blossom granita. Pastry chef Deborah Racicot also deserves a nod for her wd-50–esque parsnip-carrot cake, adorned with a squiggle of cream cheese frosting.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 9, 2014