An Under-the-Radar Chefs Club Serves Up Swanky Fun
Your pigeon squeamishness is understandable. In New York the birds are pests, squabbling over pizza crusts, staining the pavements with poop. There's a reason menus here refer to farmed pigeon meat as squab.
But if you don't steel yourself and order “le pigeon” at Manhattan’s Chefs Club, you’ll miss out on one of the very best dishes on the menu—a tiny, deeply golden bird on a heap of perfectly cooked rice that is tender with a soft, chewy bite, the grains all shining with fat, hiding fresh peas. There is mustard-y liver mousse to mix in, sweet and dark and almost boozy, and you use it to make your own dirty rice as you go, or to dip a little pigeon leg before you nibble. It’s outstanding.
Eventually, you’re bound to notice a gigantic boulder of pink rock salt hanging in a glass box near the brick ceiling, strung with rope like a soon-to-be-deployed weapon in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Your eye will naturally go to the back wall of the dining room, which is filled with portraits of chefs—Tom Colicchio, Bobby Flay, Suzanne Goin. Few restaurants could get away with claiming all these powerful associations, but this one is special: The lineup is fixed by Food & Wine.
Sure, other national food magazines have chef rankings and awards, as well as test kitchens that host events, but only Food & Wine has managed to compress the two into a swanky full-time restaurant. (Two, in fact: The first Chefs Club opened at the St. Regis Aspen in 2012). The New York menu registers the magazine’s taste with dishes from four men who previously won Food & Wine’s title of “Best New Chef.” The idea for that fantastic pigeon comes from a restaurant in Portland, Ore., called Le Pigeon, run by Gabriel Rucker.
Here's the catch: The four chefs aren't in the Chefs Club kitchen every night—the one that is would be Didier Elena, an imposing Frenchman who previously cooked for Alain Ducasse. He sends out blushing mid-rare lamb chops with white beans and endive, as well as hot, smarmy tangles of carbonara—two dishes from Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, a Colorado-based chef. And he bakes warm biscuits to accompany sliced Iberico ham, a generously portioned snack from Linton Hopkins in Atlanta. Elena serves his own dishes at Chefs Club, as well, including a delicious, simple ratatouille-inspired toast with all the vegetables layered raw, then heated through in the pizza oven and drizzled with basil oil.
The restaurant is an amalgam of personalities, not a single vision, and the menu is appropriately larded with credits—a salad of the month from one guest chef, a dessert of the month from another—but the food is well-executed. The house pastry chef is Sylvain Marrari, one of whose recent desserts involved thinly sliced apple, caramelized and layered with jelly and yuzu-spiked apple sorbet. A disk of meringue, thin enough to break with a tap of your spoon, gave it structure and texture and all the sweetness it needed.
If you care about the cheffy face time (and many who come here do) a smaller dining room and kitchen in the back hosts tastings with visiting chefs for about 16 people at a time. These menus will feature a portrait of the chef’s face on the cover, along with a condensed biography on the first page with all sorts of useless details (“his favorite vegetable is the parsnip”). The highlighted chef will be present to talk about the food at length—and serve it.
Chefs Club is an interesting restaurant. It's a strange one, too, because it shows us how our fascination with chefs as personalities—as celebrities—and our impulse to get as close to them as possible can sometimes get in the way of a good dinner. “We’ve got a very special set up for you,” the host told me on one of my visits, guiding my friend and I to a narrow strip of marble in front of the oven.
It was so special that there was nowhere to put our feet, nowhere to hang our bags, nowhere to fit the dishes we ordered. As we ate, just a few feet away from cooks working hard and fast to keep up with orders during the dinner rush, I imagined the luxury of a comfy table a bit farther away from the action.
The open kitchen in the center of the dining room is an invitation to watch. Unlike a sushi counter, where the food comes directly from the chef’s hand to yours, these dishes are transported by a wait staff. You are here for no other reason than to sit and admire the kitchen work. But what if the chef is in a bad mood, and the cooks' stress is palpable?
The other issue with big open kitchens is us, the diners: We’re animals. Near the end of the night, when people are good and drunk, they tend to forget that the kitchen is someone’s work space and invite themselves in. On a recent evening, as diners pushed their way into the kitchen and held up a cook’s sharp knives like trophies while taking selfies, one man announced a possibly made-up statistic to his table: “The average woman under 25 spends 45 minutes a day selfie-ing.” Later, two women leaped up in sequined dresses to sit on the pass for a photo.
The pass is where the plates go when they are ready to move from the kitchen to the table, and it's not really meant for people’s bottoms, but no one seemed to get upset. Though the food at Chefs Club can be very good, it's not always the center of the attention.
Chefs Club is at 275 Mulberry Street (Soho); +1 (212) 941-1100 or chefsclub.com
Rating: 2/4 Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: Johnny cakes with spring greens ($16); Le pigeon ($38); Lamb chops ($39); Potato gnocchi with morels ($16); Jamon with biscuits ($25); Green apple sorbet and meringue ($12); Pistachio pavlova ($12)
Who’s Next to You: Men in blue shirts who refuse to use the correct pronoun as they discuss Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover; Tall, thin bankers at the bar; Posh out-of-towners; Friends of the chefs
Need to Know: Keep an eye on the calendar for the exciting one-off dinners from visiting chefs who work in the back studio, hosting fewer than 20 people at a time. Just keep in mind that these meals will vary in quality and can be expensive ($100 a person plus $90 wine pairings).