In New York, we jump to be included. We run to restaurant openings, want to be the first to critique, and feel accomplished when we know the hottest place to be on any given night. But there’s something to be said for letting restaurants age a bit, allowing them to figure out who they are and what they uniquely have to offer over time and with maturity.
“We just passed our two-year mark, and I feel like we’ve made big strides,” says Brendan McHale, chef and co-owner of the Eddy (342 East 6th Street; 646-895-9884). “We’ve grown a lot and kind of gotten into this new chapter where we’re thinking a little differently about food; not in a way that’s not approachable, but in a way that’s more fun for our guests and more fun for us.”
His menu has always been about putting a “creative spin on refined, seasonal fare” — which could be said about the majority of East Village restaurants nowadays. But McHale — along with fellow co-owner and wine director Jason Soloway — strives to bring that beautiful, intangible element to their space: soul. This means hiring cooks who give a damn about cooking, a front-of-house staff that looks at their clients as actual humans, and a quiet, nurturing dining room with golden, ambient light that allows diners to feel comfortably transported out of New York City for a short while. “Tuning into the love and the nature of it makes the broth better, so to speak,” says McHale.
“Nature” makes another kind of appearance, too.
McHale grew up in New England, and his time spent in woods and rivers is a huge influence on how he approaches food. He fishes as often as possible, and the restaurant’s name recalls the “calm moment surrounded by chaos” in a river called an “eddy” — a point where the water reverses flow and stills, and the world below the surface is peaceful for a brief moment.
The river in the western Catskills in which he often fishes sits adjacent to Berried Treasures Farm, on a lush, thousand-year-old riverbed high in minerals. McHale claims that unique land makes Franca Tantillo’s potatoes, sunchokes, and strawberries particularly “incredible.” This means he treats Tantillo’s farm-fresh ingredients as respectfully and simply as possible.
“I guess, less is more for us,” he says. “Not that we’re just charring an onion that’s seasoned with salt and pepper. But when things are growing around us, we present them simply and make them taste good.” McHale focuses on balancing salt, fat (which he clarifies can mean just using olive oil — versus the animal-laden fats applied to many vegetables today), and acid. “With acids, we enjoy making different vinegars or saving our pickling brine in squeeze bottles to finish things, since it’s low in acid and high in flavor,” McHale explains. “That’s important to us.”
During this particularly lush time of year, when the challenge of “figuring out how to use everything is kind of cool,” he utilizes abundant ingredients in raw applications as well. He’ll puree arugula with walnuts to go underneath a piece of fish or juice celery for a savory ice atop oysters — “stuff like that where you can extract flavor and not feel like you’re annihilating it. Or we’ll do a light sauté, like a ramp leaf poached in butter to go on fish that’s a little toothsome, with some raw garlic. That’s important — sometimes barely cooking means it comes out nicer,” he says.
Such dishes reflect the style he and his team are still working to create and refine. When the Eddy first opened, McHale admits to building dishes that were, at their core, rather “mainstream…sort of recycled ideas with spins on them.” At their two-year mark, he has a strong, passionate cooking team in place that led them to “be able to have more of an open discussion about what we’re doing and how we’re cooking things.”
He’s particularly jazzed about their new olive oil cake with buttermilk semifreddo and those incredible strawberries. “The semifreddo starts with this long cooking session of whisking sugar, buttermilk, and eggs until it almost forms a buttermilk marshmallow that is so good I was like, ‘Should we stop there and just serve a gigantic bowl of buttermilk marshmallow!?’ And they were like, ‘That’s a horrible idea.’ So we added whipped cream and made it into a semifreddo,” McHale explains. “We steep strawberries in chamomile, sugar, and a little salt, and it ends up being this red, translucent consommé. Then it’s garnished with basil and lemon thyme. We’ve always done herbal or salt elements to take you away from a sweet level or, more accurately, to give you a point of reference for something sweet. Altogether, it magically became a take on strawberry shortcake in a seasonal, different rendition that we’re proud of. I feel good about that dessert — it’s a bitch to make, but it’s worth it.”
There are, of course, external challenges, too. Their kitchen is “the size of your closet,” fitting three people, a three-burner stove, a plancha, and a salamander. “Our downstairs prep area is like a version of Fraggle Rock — our means of cooking are limited.” He worries about the increasing costs of rent, ingredients, and wages in New York City and the longevity of other small restaurants, and so they have joined with other local spots like Pouring Ribbons, Huertas, and Virginia’s to compare numbers, challenges, and successes. “It’s good to power our numbers as a team,” he says. “But it’s important for me to stay focused on the creativity, and us staying happy in the kitchen and riding it as long as we can,” he confirms.
At the end of the day, the joy of cooking and taking care of people keeps him going after eleven years in one of the toughest markets for hospitality. “This is my first restaurant with ownership,” he says. “It’s a great challenge, it’s rewarding. It feels like when I was young and cooking for my parents, and that drive inspires me to keep at it. It feels good.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 9, 2016