Some restaurants go to great lengths to wow with their first impressions. The kitchen might fashion intricate miniature compositions for amuse-bouches, or flaunt their bread-baking prowess via a full-on gluten assault. King, the cheery downtown nook from partner Annie Shi and chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, begins every meal with a single cracker. These aren’t your average Trump-hued Ritz rounds, of course, but a wide Sardinian flatbread called carta di musica — so named for their papery thinness, like a sheet of music. Gnarled, brittle, and tasting like well-done pizza crust in the best way possible, the crackers are a simple, assured choice — one that alludes to the rest of the deliberate and uncomplicated Mediterranean-inspired cooking here.
New Yorker Shi met de Boer and Shadbolt — who hail from Buckinghamshire and London, respectively — on their home turf. She was working at the fashionable Clove Club and they were cooking together at the River Café, London’s nearly three-decade-old paean to Italian cuisine where celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and April Bloomfield got their start. In early September, the trio set up shop on an unassuming Soho corner that for a decade housed beloved Vietnamese neighborhood haunt Mekong. King buzzes with a similar lighthearted energy, its concise menu of constantly changing market-driven recipes suited to repeat visits. Framed by a forest-green façade, both the snug bar area and cream-toned dining room, designed by de Boer’s mother, soak up natural light on summer evenings and glow golden at night. Shi, a warm and gracious host who also handles wines, runs a smooth operation. Peering in, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d been here for three years rather than three months, so persistent is the flow of traffic during prime business hours.
King’s well-dressed crowds snack on $9 finger foods — stacks of fried chickpea panisse, maybe, or battered artichokes with only a wedge of lemon for spritzing — and sip cocktails that rely heavily on French spirits. These make fine precursors to a meal, but you’d be forgiven for skipping right to small plates like plump, buttery Roman semolina gnocchi or malfatti, Lombardy’s beloved spinach-ricotta dumplings, here rendered exceptionally pillowy. Roasted honey-nut pumpkin is sugary enough that it could be used in a dessert. Instead, the prized gourd is draped with wilted dandelion greens and chile pepper ribbons, the dish’s bolder elements tempered by dollops of crème fraîche. The kitchen also isn’t afraid to offer more subdued tastes — rare in our funky, fermented times — like poached veal tongue sliced thin and served at room temperature with swiss chard, lentils, and a spoonful of creamy sauce ravigote. Many of the same ingredients undergo makeovers week to week, so polenta might show up as grilled wedges topped with juicy quail, followed days later by bowls of velvety soft-cooked polenta tinted green from dandelions, a melty mound of cheese from Vermont’s Twig Farm embedded in the decadent porridge.
With respect to my Thanksgiving host this year, it will be hard to top King’s roast guinea hen with chestnuts and fried sage in terms of sheer poultry pleasure. Shadbolt and de Boer deliver the bird succulent and golden-brown, the plate flooded with gravy. National holiday or no, with a serving of rustically chunky mashed celeriac on the side, the $58 shared entrée is cause for voracious celebration. I also felt like cheering after cutting into firm-fleshed monkfish, which the chefs roast on the bone over potatoes and fennel, using the pan-drippings to make a mellow sauce with French vermouth. Veal, meanwhile, deserves a golf clap for its polite presentation, the seared-medium bone-in chop unadorned save for poached, gently seasoned artichokes and spinach. Despite the ever-changing menu, there’s always some preparation of hanger steak (listed in French as “onglet”) available: grilled over rosemary sprigs, perhaps, or planted next to potatoes and prosciutto. Hope yours comes, as mine did one night, with Etruscan salsa, an incredibly potent and piquant mash of olive oil, bread, garlic, pine nuts, chile peppers, and herbs.
An airy dark-chocolate tart is another of King’s mainstays, though it’s overshadowed by one filled with dates baked into luscious custard. French booze reappears in a frozen Pernod parfait, the drink’s licorice notes accentuated by an anise cookie. Shadbolt and de Boer’s baked apple, however, elicits the most excitement at meal’s end, delivered to the table still wrapped in parchment paper, to be torn into like a gift. Cooked until it turns mahogany, its core is stuffed with a jammy pulp of prunes, almonds, and amaretto. Like the carta di musica, these are straightforward plays that pay off. Still, pouring an accompanying cup of fresh cream over the soft fruit does feel pretty posh.
18 King Street, 917-825-1618