Opening restaurants is kind of like having children. Now, to be sure, I haven’t actually had any kids yet, so perhaps I am speaking out of turn. But I have friends with kids, and I have opened restaurants and I know from that experience, there are endless numbers of sleepless nights, high doses of anxiety (getting your permits, hiring staff, and then training them all and waiting for the critics) coupled with moments of joy (mostly at the end of a good night when you are too exhausted to really appreciate it), and one unnerving and constantly nagging question: I am doing this right?
I’ll be the first to say that the talented group of folks who opened Public —the architecture and design team of AvroKO along with chef Brad Farmerie and partner Dan Rafalin—got it right. It was five years ago that they opened the doors to a former muffin factory on Elizabeth Street that they converted into a stunning work of conceptual design evoking public spaces like court houses, post offices and schools with layer upon layer of salvaged detail. For his part, chef Brad Farmerie did a bang up job of creating a menu that for as many far flung ingredients as it contained (kangaroo, falafel and tahini, anyone), was, and remains, a thrilling culinary ride.
As with children, once one is grown and you’ve recovered from the initial shock and awe of parenthood, you ponder adding to the family tree.
Five years is a little long to wait in the realm of siblings, but in the world of restaurants it gives restaurateurs enough time to reflect on past mistakes, explore the real estate market, and to hone in on a clear vision of what baby number two will be all about. In the case of AvroKO and friends, their second child called Double Crown—went in a different direction than their first, looking towards the cuisine of the British empire both within the borders of England and well into its colonial territories in Southeast Asia, places like Singapore and India.
But like their first born, there are similarities, the most obvious of which is the stamp of their trademark AvroKo style. The restaurant is located in the former Manhatta space, which was a fairly ubiquitous oversized brasserie on the Bowery. It’s now a dramatic ode to colonial Britain , marked by ancient carved screens lining raw brick walls, pulley-operated iron fans hung from a wooden cubby-hole ceiling, a row of Asian lanterns above the bar, and tufted banquettes and rattan lattice-backed chairs filling the dining room. The bar, lit with amber filament Edison bulbs, and serving a selection of fresh and juicy cocktails, is already crowded with swarms of friends, groups of lithe lovelies in skinny jeans and ankle boots, and svelte well-kept men who perhaps chugged beer at one point in their lives but now are more comfortable (at least in public) with a pour of good bourbon than a cold Bud.
The bar is a great place to sample some of Brad and his chef de cuisine Chris Rendell’s “Hawker Snacks”—little bites that are riffs on the vendor hawked street food in Southeast Asia. There are pigs in a wet blanket—pinky-sized pork sausages snuggled inside sweet juicy lychees with a curry coconut sauce ($6), and a fancy take on shrimp cocktail in the form of sweet and juicy chilled prawns served in a tall narrow glass over iceberg wedges and radishes Mary Rose sauce—think Thousand Island dressing but kicked up with sriracha ($11 a half pint/$22 for a pint). While the prawns are little tough to eat because of such a narrow glass (you are supposed to use a long metal toothpick to get at the prawns, lettuce and radishes), it’s worth the maneuvering especially because Rendell deep fries the prawns’ skeletal bodies turning them into crunchy salty snacks along the same line of addiction as kettle cooked, sea-salted potato chips.
While they sounded great, mini duck steam buns, which are about the size of a restaurant matchbook, are mostly bun and lack enough duck ($6). Instead, have the beautifully braised pork belly, served in luscious fatty slices with caramelized ends, in a puddle of sweet soy and chile sauce (spicy and sweet) that gets a refreshing lift from a generous handful of cilantro leaves. And while you’re at the bar, you might as well have a drink. Try the Pimm’s Cup (with strawberry and mint), a Watermelon Collins, or the Gooseberry Smash, all creations of the talented and charming barman Brian McGrory, who you may remember from Public.
Once you’re finished with your Hawker Snacks you may want to settle into a table in the dining room as Julie, Kathy and I did the other night, surrounded by an interesting group of diners. We were seated in the rear dining room, which becomes a thoroughfare for folks heading to the back lounge, Madame Geneva, and therefore offers some wonderful people watching. But we had some great people watching in the dining room as well. One table in particular caught our (and the rest of the room’s) interest). On one side of the table was a very tall woman (who at one point could have been a man) dressed in black leggings, a black Rolling Stones tank top and the highest of heels and the biggest of streak-dyed hair. Seated opposite her on the banquette were two men: one a handsome Asian man with Prada glasses and the other a sort of George Costanzia character. Our estimation: the woman was clearly working (wink, wink). The rest of the dining room was far less interesting than the odd threesome—just a lot of extraordinarily beautiful people dressed so well that it made me wonder whether our financial crisis was just some wild dream (er, nightmare).
As the restaurant's name implies, the menu crosses over between dishes from colonial kingdoms and the motherland. Speaking to the latter, if you’re a fan of Bangers and Mash ($16), you’ll enjoy the portion served at Double Crown. It’s a nice plate of British pub food, left alone and served simply: a mound of freshly mashed potatoes, a couple of flavorful housemade boar sausages topped with a beet relish. It’s the sort of food you might ask your Mum to make for you on a cold night or to comfort you after a day of hard knocks. An old school Wellington ($28) centered around venison instead of beef was disappointing only because the pastry that it was wrapped in was doughy, limp and mushy. If the wrapper had been more of substantial and less soggy, this would have been a winner because the venison was wonderful—cooked to ruby red juiciness and plated on a garnet red currant jus. But I should also mention that the plate was barren of any sort of side (veg? potato? Anybody?) which left that venison quite lonely on the plate.
Twice-cooked chicken is remarkably tender (and reasonably priced at $16), served in a clay pot over raft of water spinach and ginger garlic relish set in a bracing star anise broth. While I was impressed with the texture and the flavor of the chicken, the broth was slightly bitter and left me with a strong after taste. Perhaps the garlic and anise were just a bit too much for me, because Julie didn’t agree with me at all. She mopped up every last bit. I was also let down by the Goan vegetable curry ($15) which resembled more of a warm and hearty vegetable stew more than spice-perfumed curry.
While entrées were kind of middling, starters were uniformly good. I loved the crispy drunken quail ($12) in which a half a bird was rendered super juicy and then snuggled into a shell of golden brown crunch and served with a cinnamon tamarind sauce ($12). The Singapore laksa was immensely slurpable. The rich and creamy coconut broth (more like a liquid coconut custard) was swimming with a tangle of green tea noodles, lump crab and bean sprouts ($10). I’d come back for that laksa several times a week and my only suggestion would be to offer it in entrée size as well.
Miso-glazed bone marrow ($13) is a rather fun dish that features a large piece of femur bone split down the middle and lacquered with miso so the unctuous innards of the marrow get even sweeter. Served with warm slices of brioche and orange marmalade ($13) it makes for a sort of grown up peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Scottish salmon is house-cured and served with black bread and a zippy pickled relish called piccalilli and a coconut labne, which provide a refreshing change of pace from the more traditional caviar and crème fraiche salmon service.
Desserts were a definite high point, especially the rice pudding samosas—creamy rice pudding tucked inside triangles of phylo dough with a honey-apple chutney ($9). Though tiny, we also like the pecan tartlet with tamarind caramel and ale ice cream ($9). A labne cream flanked by honey-roasted figs on a dusting of gingerbread reminded me of Greece, not Britain or its colonies, but it was terrific.
One month in, Double Crown is a beautiful new addition to the AvroKO family that’s growing up nicely. The space is hot, the bar is in full swing and the service is excellent. While the kitchen has a few weaknesses, that’s understandable with a newborn. Luckily, this baby’s got experienced parents.