The Breslin is a restaurant for people who like to eat. That may sound redundant, but given the lengths to which some restaurants go to accommodate picky eaters (an entrée of “steamed vegetables with boiled egg” at one downtown spot comes to mind), the Breslin embraces food with genuine gusto.
Granted, chef April Bloomfield’s British pub fare is extreme cuisine. Bacon-wrapped eggs, stuffed pig’s foot and fried head cheese are all on the menu, should you be craving them. But there’s also sea bass, chicken (aka poussin) and some excellent salads if you’re not a particularly adventurous diner. The menu—and the food—almost seeks to provoke: the “onion and bone marrow soup with parmesan toast” ($10) turns out to be a particularly meaty, velvety riff on French onion soup, with the bone marrow only adding to a beefy flavor that already existed in the original. Tread carefully, but do not be afraid.
Despite the unfortunate effect the Breslin had on Sam Sifton’s digestive system, you don’t have to eat heavy here all the time. The pear salad with mountain gorgonzola and escarole ($16) is an airy lesson in contrasting salt and sweet flavors. The blue cheese has been whipped into an emulsion, coating every leaf but not drowning out the slight bitterness of the greens and the crisp sugar of the ripe pear slices. If you order your salad dressing “on the side,” don’t even bother coming here, because you’d just be missing the point.
Of course, some of the most addictive stuff is the fattiest. We were particularly interested to try the boiled peanuts ($6), since you rarely see the likes of those here. D., who’s from Georgia, gave the Breslin’s the thumbs up: not only are they boiled (and brined?) in salt water, they’re fried in pork fat, shells on. Think of it as edamame via the Deep South.
“Pork scratchings” ($5) are, as our waiter put it, “the same kind of pork rinds you see in the grocery store, but more gourmet.” Apparently house-made scratchings are common in the South at restaurants, but they’re still a novelty to me. With the same light, porous texture as rice crisps but a much higher fat content, the Breslin’s faintly smoky, salty deep fried pig skin finally explains why pork rinds are considered an impulse buy at 7-Eleven registers everywhere: you know you shouldn’t have them, but they’re hard to resist.
The entrees are trickier to navigate. Two of the six are for two to three people, and unless you have friends who are as enthusiastic about eating pork as you are, that leaves you with four entrees to choose from. Rather than sacrifice the chance to eat the smoked pork belly with mashed potatoes for two ($50), I ordered it and took half home with me. It was worth it: Bloomfield’s pork belly is like gourmet barbecue, meltingly tender with a solid, chewy crust. The mashed potatoes alongside are a nostalgic, buttery, whipped potato dream. (And you can make a pulled pork sandwich at home with the leftovers: Shred the pork with two forks, mix it with good quality barbecue sauce, heat it and put on a bun.)
Unlike Sifton, we didn’t have a bad experience with the braised shin of beef. It was juicy, meaty and relatively lean, braised not to mask the flavors but to elicit the flavor of the beef itself. Odder was the polenta underneath, which was mixed with oily pesto: polenta, like grits, is often better left alone than gussied up.
Another area of weakness is the cocktail menu. Service at the crowded bar is fast and friendly, but even the rye and whiskey cocktails are sugary sweet. You’re better off ordering just a glass of bourbon or the Breslin Aberdeen cask ale, specially made for the restaurant by Sixpoint in Red Hook.
With food as good as this, a cleverly-curated design scheme and a horde of hungry diners at the gate, why did the Breslin get one star from the Times instead of two? Maybe it has something to do with that horde: The Breslin is one of several insanely popular new restaurants that don’t take reservations. Surely there must be something between the two extremes of the nine circles of hell that is Momofuku Ko’s online reservations system and the unleashed chaos of the Breslin, where crowds of women in quirky hats and men in retro ‘70s glasses spill out into the lobby of the Ace Hotel (“Hogwarts for hipsters,” indeed). Even when the front of the house operates as efficiently as possible, you wonder why you couldn’t have just saved yourself an hour plus wait by calling ahead.
And yet, as at the Spotted Pig, you’ll want to return. You can sense the good natured enthusiasm behind this place, where, on the night before opening over a month ago, affable owner Ken Friedman let an unknown person and her mom in for a drink. We were total strangers to him, but Friedman helped us out because there was no room at the inn—in this case the lobby bar at the Ace. We sat in the quiet while they hung the last mirrors and April Bloomfield prepared a big pot of pork for the staff. It was a quintessential New York moment, and that, in the end, is what we’re all looking for in a restaurant.
16 West 29th Street, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue
New York, NY