A round of butter stood upright on a shallow ceramic plate — like a spare tire waiting to be shoved onto an axle. Poking at it with a knife revealed a thin plastic membrane that gave the churned dairy its puck-like shape. Under the glow of the wall sconces and hanging kitchen lamps at Lowlife (178 Stanton Street, 212-257-0509), we had a brief moment of diner doubt — was the plastic an intentional inclusion? Perhaps an edgy statement to prove, as our waitress relayed, that chef Alex Leonard makes the velvet-soft butter in house?
Her startled reaction confirmed that it was indeed inadvertent, but Leonard’s grassy spread tasted so good that the foreign matter was only a distraction. The gratis bread service — which features yeasty, teardrop-shaped pain d’epi sourdough rolls from Roberta’s bakery in Bushwick — arrives nice and toasty. The bread’s audible crackle when its crust is broken resonates as a warm welcome at this ambitious, cozy hideaway, which owner Hugh Crickmore (formerly of Mas Farmhouse), opened last week on the Lower East Side.
Leonard, previously the chef de cuisine at Carlo Mirarchi’s forward-thinking tasting counter Blanca, channeled his former employer’s Brooklyn DIY ethos when developing his dishes. He sources some produce from Crickmore’s brother’s organic farm in the Catskills, and makes many of his ingredients in-house, including cheese, kimchi, pickles, and the aforementioned butter.
Lowlife’s New American menu is progressive in its global disparateness: your meal might start with small plates like fresh coriander-spiced fluke in smoked dashi ($16) or lamb tartare seasoned with mint, shrimp salt, and egg yolk ($18), followed by delicate garganelli noodles ($20) coated in lamb bolognese.
Anchoring the savory side of things are guinea hen roulade ($20) and a $54 whole chicken yakitori ($28 for half) with scallions and smoked cabbage, charred to a sweet-smoky finish on Leonard’s binchotan charcoal-fired robata grill. And in a nod to the neighborhood’s past, there’s borscht ($12), deconstructed into three petite quenelles — one each of icy borscht, heady raw sweet cream, and orange pearls of trout roe — and pungent herring and sardines adorned with pine nuts and chimichurri.
Sweets ($10) continue the minimalist theme, and include panna cotta showered with Concord grape and Bosc pear granitas, and raw-milk ice shocked with a tangy, husk cherry compote and funky black lime shavings.
The dining room — wrapped in yellow pine, exposed brick with brown leather, natural wood, and copper accents — makes dramatic use of its ample open space. Crickmore, who handled the wine at Mas, offers 25 by-the-glass options, as well as European and domestic beers, like the hip-hop inspired Positive Contact, a cider-beer hybrid from Dogfish Head brewed in collaboration with producer Dan the Automator.
For both fine dining vets, this venture represents an opportunity to share their pointed expertise while simultaneously letting loose. The laughs and smiles from Leonard’s staff as they congregate at the pass confirms as much.