I was drinking gin and pineapple juice at the bar of Gabriel Stulman’s newest restaurant, Simon & the Whale, and tasting folds of tongue pastrami laid over caramelized cauliflower, a combination that paid off against long odds, when applause broke out by the entrance. I hadn’t heard anyone drop a glass or sing “Happy Birthday,” so I asked the woman next to me, who had eaten there three or four times already, if she knew what the sudden ovation was about.
“Have you been to Gabe’s other places?” she asked. “They like to clap for people.”
I hadn’t noticed that, but there were other Stulman touches that had been transferred from Bar Sardine, Jeffrey’s Grocery, Fedora and Joseph Leonard to Simon & the Whale when it opened in February. Case studies in how to maximize miniature spaces, they are intimate neighborhood hangouts with elevator-size kitchens where the food and cocktails are more interesting than ought to be achievable under such conditions. It’s a genre Mr. Stulman understands as well as anybody in the city.
With 76 seats in the new Freehand hotel on East 23rd Street, Simon & the Whale isn’t one of those. It’s an Army mess hall by the standards of Mr. Stulman’s Happy Cooking Hospitality group. But the design firm Roman and Williams has styled it like a California Craftsman house and subdivided it into niches and corners with open cabinets. It doesn’t display its size the way Upland, another Roman and Williams project a few blocks north, does. Even the bar is personably scaled; it’s configured like a horseshoe. Extensive personal research suggests this is the best possible shape a bar can have.
Like all of Mr. Stulman’s places, Simon & the Whale is thick with high-volume conversations when it is full, which is pretty much all night long. Like Jeffrey’s Grocery and Joseph Leonard, its name comes from a relative — in this case, Mr. Stulman’s 6-year-old son, who apparently received an impressive collection of whale-decorated baby gifts.
Also familiar to Mr. Stulman’s regulars will be the style of the servers. They’re young, talkative, fresh-faced, enthusiastic, as if they are new to the city and haven’t yet grown the protective exoskeleton of the hardened New Yorker.
Our waiter one night showered us with recommendations for dishes, all of which he loved. We asked him about things he hadn’t mentioned. He loved those, too. He loved the cocktails, a Happy Cooking strong suit, and was especially keen on one made with mezcal. “Mezcal never hurt anybody,” he said brightly. Extensive personal research suggests this is untrue.
One place where Simon & the Whale allows itself to spread out beyond the normal boundaries of the Stulman kingdom is breads and desserts. The restaurant shares a baker, Zoe Kanan, and a pastry chef, Charmaine McFarlane, with the hotel’s second-floor cafe, Studio, also run by Happy Cooking. Both are very good at their jobs.
Ms. Kanan makes the black, thick-crusted barley-rye bread flecked with anise seeds that comes with a halfhearted taramosalata and, more excitingly, a swipe of butter creamed with seaweed powder. The long thin toast, crackling with grains and seeds that sits under cured and smoked Arctic char and smoked sour cream? Hers. The poppy-seed torpedo roll that helps lift the fish sandwich with carrot-squash slaw above the ordinary? Also hers, although to be fair the long, flat fries also do their part.
And if your spirits have been sunk, as mine have, by the skimpy and uninspired dessert choices around town these days, Ms. McFarlane will be an answered prayer. No mere afterthought, her panna cotta sits on a low base of semolina cake and is decked out with pink grapefruit fillets and grapefruit marmalade spiced with red juniper berries. A cooling evergreen moat of pine ice surrounds an earthy rye pudding that’s enriched with brown butter; pears fried in honey are splayed out on top, and some acerbic cranberries prevent the whole thing from cloying. I defy you to eat it without smiling.
I can’t say I’m as taken with crunchy knotweed-rhubarb compote as a topping for a buckwheat cake as Ms. McFarlane seems to be, but the same dessert offers one of the most astonishing ice creams around. Made with beeswax, it is as deeply aromatic as honey but not as sweet, and its texture is intensely creamy but not at all waxy.
The rest of the menu is in the hands of Matt Griffin, until recently in charge of the food at Fedora and Bar Sardine. He does a neat balancing trick here, giving his adventurous side free rein at times while more often using it to add interest to the standards a hotel restaurant probably needs.
A winningly over-the-top recent special was a custard-soaked pain perdu under bacon jus, pickled cabbage and speck, like some kind of demented Reuben-croque monsieur hybrid. Liver and onions turned out to be a less thrilling snack: pickled onions with deep-fried and overcooked chicken livers.
Until it swam off the menu, there was an intriguing sideways version of squid ink risotto that had beech mushrooms and very tender squid confit over a black porridge of barley. Now there are spring peas, swirled with mint into a sauce for just-firm shrimp; the combination suggested pasta, but I was glad to have it without any starch getting in the way of the clear, sweet flavors.
If it’s pasta you want, Mr. Griffin has a glossy, chile-speckled bowl of spaghetti acqua pazza with littleneck clams and cherry tomatoes, and while the sauce is thicker and glossier than a normal acqua pazza, it is very good. What he calls a pork-collar Milanese is maybe a few millimeters too thick for the name, but I’ll take it. The cut is more flavorful than a normal cutlet, and the apricot mostarda makes a pungent and welcome counterpoint.
If you can’t finish the whole thing, it will be taken away and replaced by a plastic action figure of a New York sports hero. This is your claim check. Mine was Don Mattingly, and I wondered if maybe the applause was for him.
No, Mr. Stulman said on the phone a few days later. The woman he bought Fedora from, who has since died, was 89 when she sold it and was still showing up each night. When she entered, people clapped. “We turned that into clapping for our friends,” he said.
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