Tasting menus are always a gamble; diners are often asked to shell out money in the hopes that they get enough of the dishes they like and not too much of those they don't, on top of which is the suspicion that the dishes are showcasing what's plentiful in the kitchen, but not necessarily special. On the other hand, a tasting menu is a good way to get a sense of a restaurant's story, and to understand the chef and the menu in a larger context. Then again, tasting menus can be over priced and poorly paced…you see why I think of them as a gamble.
The tasting menu at Knife & Fork seemed like a sure thing, however: $45 for six courses at a restaurant where nearly everything on the menu appealed to me. And surely for a very reasonable $45, the six courses would all be small, after all, most tasting menus cost more and feature five dishes at most.
Well, we were wrong about the size of the dishes, but the cost of the meal seemed even more reasonable once we started eating. And eating. And eating. None of the courses was a miss, but by the fifth course, we were ready to cry Uncle.
First, a little about the restaurant: small, exposed brick, narrow bar, heavy rustic tables featuring a surprisingly fish-heavy menu and a wine list that includes both sake and an entire page of beers – in fact, the room itself has a casual, pub-like vibe that almost undercuts the serious food being served there. Chef/owner Damien Brassel opened Knife & Fork in 2006 and designed his menu with an emphasis on sustainability and seasonality. Starters are almost all $14 or $15, and entrees are priced at $27 or $28; there are many slow cooked and smoked dishes, with occasional Asian flourishes, like lemongrass and ginger in a butternut squash puree.
Our tasting menu started with an appetizer of fromage blanc over a disk of butternut squash, topped with a sun-dried tomato tapenade and elderberry flower, which was notable for the unusual blending of both flavors and textures – it was refreshing and rich at the same time. Next was one of my favorite dishes, a delicate piece of cured salmon topped with salmon roe, alongside wasabi crème fraiche and a sake-poached pear. The third course, which was still considered an appetizer, was an enormous slab of pork belly served over creamed savoy cabbage with butternut squash-lemongrass-ginger puree, and it was so good, so rich, so over the top that I couldn't finish it, although the caramelized crust on the pork belly was basically meat candy.
At this point, we started to get really full and were speculating that maybe the additional courses included a palate-cleanser. Not so.
The fourth dish was a grouper entrée, served with sautéed Russian fingerling potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms. The fish itself didn't do much for me, but the potatoes and mushrooms were fragrant and delicious. As the servers cleared our plates, we mentioned how full we were starting to feel. Oh don't worry, you only have two courses left, they said, Just the meat and the dessert. A meat course, we repeated.
The meat course was braised short ribs served over vanilla-infused potato puree. I know that short ribs have become ubiquitous to the point of overkill on menus these days, but I still love them. If left to order straight from the menu, I would happily have the cured salmon starter and the braised short rib entrée. Happily.
Dessert was a ginger crème brulee, and the only thing wrong with it was that we were too full to totally enjoy it. And then, the chef sent out a dense chocolate cake topped with pistachio ice cream, just because. We forced a few bites down and then more or less rolled ourselves to 2nd Avenue in search of a cab.
We had a bottle of Barbera D'Asti with out meal, moderately priced at $38, and the $45 per person tasting menu seemed beyond reasonable, considering the amount of (really, really good) food we were served. When I return to Knife & Fork (and I plan on returning) I will stick to the menu, but this tiny rustic spot is definitely worth your time.
Knife & Fork (212 228 4885) is located at 108 E. 4th Street and accepts all major credit cards.