In our return to the new normalcy, we all have become a lot more thoughtful about what America is. As one who had long found a people’s history on their plates, I was surprised to find myself musing on New American cuisine at Guastavino’s, British style guru Terence Conran’s New York venture, where the downstairs room is billed as an American brasserie.
Carved out of the “Catalan vaults” of the 59th Street Bridge, designed early in the century by Spanish-born, North Carolina-based architect Rafael Guastavino, it’s the underside of a span better known for marathon runners and a Simon & Garfunkel song. Tiled arches create cathedral walls in a venue that showcases Gotham at its best. It’s a Carl Sandburg type of place: one where you’d expect to find hog and steer served up on heaping platters. You can almost visualize strong men flexing muscles to move stone and create the majestic space.
Yet the first item on the bill of fare is fresh soybeans served with pickle masala and sea salt ($5). One glance and you know, one taste and you’re convinced, that while the decor is about the America we were, the food is about the America we’ve become. The Japanese standbys are tossed in a slurry of minced Indian pickle and doused with a hit of sodium to create the perfect multicultural appetizer—a bit hot, a bit salty. Amazingly to me, my guests didn’t know how to pop them out of the shell, but they soon caught on, and found them perfect for munching while perusing the extensive menu. They settled on a warming bowl of New England clam chowder dense with bits of fingerling and chunks of country bacon ($7) and a circa-1950 salad of iceberg lettuce simply dressed with green goddess ($6). I was more than happy with a side of string beans tossed with minced shallots and parsley that stood in for a salad. Mains continued the cook’s tour with the Sunday special lobster ($24.50), a one-pot homage to New England’s favorite crustacean replete with clams, potatoes, and root veggies like slightly sweet turnips. The meaty crab cake ($24.50) may have owed its origins to B’more, but the smoke-infused chipotle aioli that accompanied it was no more Maryland than the soybeans. I ignored the diner’s dictum and ordered fried catfish on Sunday ($13.75). Crunchily beer-battered in British style, it was fine, but I’ll wait until midweek next time around.
It was edamame time again during the holiday season, when the wind whipped off the river like a Lake Michigan hawk. We warmed ourselves with the liquid rubies of an Au Bon Climat pinot noir ($34). Then it was on to East Coast oysters for slurping: six spectacular malepiques and plump briny bluepoints ($10.50) and a scrumptious upscale twist on hot wings that substituted the creamy tang of Maytag blue and pungent scallions for the usual generic bleu and desiccated celery ($8.50). Indulging my Louisiana chops, I scarfed down fried green tomatoes topped with a rich ball of “Wabash Cannonball” chèvre ($9.50), hardly missing the meatiness of the Southern classic. I then went Hollywood with a Cobb salad, savoring the harmonious mix of tender Boston lettuce, snappy cress, crisp bacon, and more under a light blue cheese dressing. A main of satisfyingly spice-rubbed bluefin tuna was, as requested, sushi-rare within ($24), and disappeared before anyone got to sample. The night’s winner, though, was a splendidly simple burger of toothsome Black Angus served pleasingly pink in good American defiance of federal edict. Accompanied by a ramekin of grilled peppers with a surprise hit of habanero and a mound of perfect fries, it proved that no matter what our culinary future, some things will always taste like home.