Beyond grinding their own beans, New York’s new-wave coffee shops share certain hallmarks, like meticulous sourcing, highbrow baked goods, and a variety of specialized brewing devices, from Chemex to the Kalita Wave. At Box Kite, a minimalist St. Marks Place café that opened in December, customers ogle the custom navy-and-wood Synesso Hydra brewing system and sip on “Unicorns” — iced-coffee cocktails made with barrel-aged maple syrup and smoked sea salt.
Cora Lambert and Erik Becker launched this aromatic venture as a pop-up inside the Tribeca wine bar Maslow 6 last August, then ditched the kiosk for an East Village demitasse space that seats 10 and dispenses caffeine late into the night. While that’s great news for sleep-averse Fair Trade fetishists, after 6 p.m. Box Kite becomes a relentlessly gratifying progressive restaurant that operates in tandem with the retail coffee enterprise. Dinner is served à la carte, or as a twice-nightly, 10-course tasting ($85).
Justin Slojkowski and Dave Gulino, who lead the charge, had cooked together at Roberta’s and Acme. Tim Reynolds, formerly of Empellón Cocina, was brought on board to maintain momentum and combat inertia. I don’t know if any of them grew up playing with a Fisher-Price kitchen, but I’m positive they didn’t anticipate cooking in its professional equivalent as adults, let alone share such cramped quarters among three full-grown men. “I’ve only gone psychotic a few times in the past month,” Reynolds confides. Still, they’re all smiles and small talk when it’s time to present.
They’re not the first chefs to inhabit quarters this small or quirky, but the constraints yield a frolicking, raw cooking style evocative of their boundary-pushing forebears. Slojkowski pours fermented tomato gazpacho into small ceramic bowls. Sour and clean, the sunset-colored broth floods a miniature sculpture park of spring peas, curls of shaved cucumber, and viola petals. It’s precious, sure, but the taste is electric, like downing a jar of quick pickles, juice and all. One night we spied a plastic bin labeled “mystery flowers.” Asked about its contents, Reynolds leaned in close and mockingly whispered, “We don’t know.” Abruptly, he turned his attention to a tray of salt-roasted beets, then back to us. “We don’t want to be cooking in a corner forever. No one does.”
Their food speaks to their outsize ambitions, provocative but ultimately approachable in its balance of technique and flavor. Lengthy recitations of components accompany dish presentations, but because the chefs obsessively tweak recipes, even they have difficulty running through the list of ingredients and techniques. Those beets receive a coating of bee pollen, Angostura bitters, nigella and coriander seeds, fermented huckleberries, and gel made from cape gooseberries, a tart Scandinavian fruit. The gel reappears atop a goat’s milk caramel petit four at meal’s end.
In another New Nordic moment, fatty slabs of cured mackerel roost atop brittle, fried reindeer lichen nests like Viking sushi. The morsels glisten with a supple, musky cep egg yolk sauce that’s a brilliant textural counterpoint to both the crisp flora and toothsome fish. Just as risky is Slojkowski and Gulino’s elegant, austere surf and turf: barely cooked arctic char punctuated by raw foie gras, an asterisk of trout roe, and brown-butter sage cream sauce. It’s a dish that ably pits a battery of fatty, salty artillery against a common enemy — subtle seafood.
Gnudi spotlight a duo of cheeses from cult Vermont creamery Jasper Hill Farm. The thimble-size cylinders are made with grassy, spreadable Harbison cheese and scattered with walnuts and chanterelles. (On my first visit, they were joined by late-season ramps. The following week it was pickled and sautéed garlic scapes.) A foam made from an odorous, washed-rind cheese called Winnimere is the boldest touch in an already busy dish but also the most unifying. Its acrid funk hangs over the plate like edible smog. Scallops sport a mahogany crust but maintain their silkiness, aided by almond butter and cut through with carrot juice and skyr (Icelandic yogurt). It’s as fluent a pairing of dairy and mollusk as an oyster pan roast but without the digestive regrets.
Restaurants that constantly experiment are inherently a gamble, but the only misfire we encountered was a bland, yellow zucchini vichyssoise with sumptuous almond tofu and not enough caviar to counter the unseasoned soup. And while à la carte bills can mount at most small-plates establishments, portions here are large enough that an abbreviated menu won’t leave you wanting. Likewise, ordering by the item doesn’t cut you out of the fun, as several courses straddle both menu formats.
Lambert trained under eminent barman Sasha Petraske and chose Le Bernardin bartender Diego Sanchez-Maitret to oversee a list of 16 mostly European wines (half of which are priced at less than $65) and a handful of beers. A sampling board holding cups of macchiato and espresso ends the tasting, but the wine and beer license allows for digestifs and other soft booze, and as the bitters tasting room, Amor y Amargo, has proven, coffee and amaro make mattress-breaking bedfellows.
Desserts, like a plate of dehydrated milk chips, tristar strawberries, and husk cherries embedded into a swipe of brown-butter passionfruit curd, continue the thrill ride. Even better is a verdant stack of sorrel and lovage semifreddo topped with celery granita. Reynolds scoops nuggets of warm, brown-butter parsnip cake over the cold ingredients. “Get at it,” he commands, encouraging us to strike while the contrast in temperatures is hot. Like Box Kite, the dessert is a lasting pleasure best enjoyed in the immediate.