When Northern Spy Food Co. opened in the East Village in 2009, it immediately felt like a neighborhood institution, something that had grown organically with the greening and cleaning up of Alphabet City. For some, the grime east of Tompkins Square Park was part of the charm, one of the last gritty parts of lower Manhattan; for the newer implants, the arrival of a seasonally-minded restaurant, one that proudly (some might say obnoxiously) wears its purveyors on its sleeve, couldn’t come soon enough.
The interesting thing about Northern Spy Food Co. has been its insistence on maintaining a low profile, preferring to blend into the community rather than shine above it. Despite a glowing New York Times write-up in 2010 and constant appearances on “Best Of” roundups, Northern Spy Food Co. tends to eschew the spotlight, favoring homey Sunday Suppers and a lunch delivery service over glitzy publicity stunts and a haughty hostess stand. Really, the only pretentious thing about the place is their aforementioned insistence on listing farms and purveyors, but even that can be construed as earnest, not mimetic.
As such, you end up with a menu that is thoughtful and well executed, but ultimately comforting and filling. This is not fragile food, although some components are handled delicately. Yes, there is the obligatory kale salad, but it is shredded and showered with shaved clothbound cheddar. There are sticky buns, savory, stuffed with pork, iced with parsnip glaze.
This sensibility also applies to the small but smart dessert list.
My friend Re, my delightful dinner companion that night, has a restaurant dessert philosophy that is heretical to some, but generally well-founded: Avoid the Chocolate Dessert. There is always one, and it is usually uninspired.
Usually, she is right. She likes chocolate, I like chocolate, and sometimes we order the Chocolate Dessert. However, nine times out of ten you will get a completely unremarkable warm chocolate cake or leaden chocolate mousse, even at top restaurants. They’re not bad, per se – high quality chocolate rarely disappoints – just forgettable.
I don’t know why so many pastry chefs feel the need to hew to the classics for the chocolate desserts, but the flipside is that they really get to play around with the fruits. Re and I ordered the flamboyantly named pear bombe, accompanied by goat cheese thyme ice cream and maple walnut brittle ($7).
For the pomp of its name, the actual dessert was much more simplistic and elegant. A whole, poached pear comes perched on a perfect round of brittle. Inside, the seeds have been neatly scooped out and replaced by a quenelle of the ice cream.
Every aspect of this dessert is muted, and works in complete harmony with the other elements. The pear is rendered soft and silky, the goat cheese ice cream is more mildly tangy than piquant, with only a faint perfume of thyme. Together, the two are subtle but pleasingly intriguing. The punch of the dish comes from the brittle, which adds the crunch that the pear is sorely lacking.
This brittle was what every brittle should be. It was crunchy but not sticky or tough, shattering agreeably when cracked with my spoon. There were clear and true notes of pure maple, complemented by a welcome salty, buttery punch. Northern Spy Food Co. should consider selling packets of it alongside the Liddabit caramels by the register.
Quickly putting the pear away between the two of us, Re and I left the dinner table in an unusually good mood. Was it the effect of satisfying conversation or of satisfying food? We couldn’t say, and that is the magic of Northern Spy Food Co. It serves excellent food, intended for excellent company, perfect for good friends and neighbors.
*Apologies for the terrible photo quality. If anyone knows how to take decent shots while in a dim restaurant, please! Enlighten me.