For some people, a bad table is one where nobody can see them. For others, it’s one where everybody can. In my book, a table is bad when it distracts you from settling down and paying attention to the meal.
There’s a table like that at the new East Village restaurant Claud, a lone two-top shoved against a small orphaned stretch of wall behind the host stand. It sits just off the central artery that runs from the entrance to the back garden, and it’s right by the path to the restrooms as well. Somebody is always walking past or around it on the way to somewhere else.
I ate there recently, and by the time the food started to arrive I was jumpy and distracted. It was a little like having a picnic in a flower bed on the median strip of Park Avenue — in the center of everything but not connected to any of it.
Then I ate. The flavors were so direct, the point of each dish so lucid, that every minor annoyance melted away.
The dish listed on the menu as “Red shrimp, garlic, olive oil” turned out to be a version of Spanish gambas al ajillo that cooked itself. The shrimp had been raw moments earlier, and they hissed in the hot oil that came halfway to the lip of a small cast-iron skillet as their creamy pink flesh turned to bright coral. Once they were gone, I had pieces of good sourdough to dip into the oil, which now tasted of the garlic clove and dried chile that had been shimmying in there all along. When you’re eating something like that, there are no bad tables. And “something like that” applies to almost everything Claud serves.
Claud opened in August in an unprepossessing basement on East 10th Street. One of the owners, Chase Sinzer, is also in charge of the wine. The other, Joshua Pinsky, is the chef. The two met about eight years ago while working at Momofuku Ko in its second, more soigne incarnation on Extra Place. They moved on; Pinsky later ran the kitchen at another David Chang restaurant, Momofuku Nishi, and Sinzer took a job in retail as a rare-wine specialist.
Pinsky’s cooking at Claud has more than a little Ko in it. There’s the quiet discipline; the understanding that real sophistication lies in distilling ideas to their essentials; the surprising skill with puff pastry. In September, I ate a mille-feuille at Claud that amounted to a club sandwich, with juicy, oil-poached cherry tomatoes and melted Moses Sleeper cheese, a tribute to brie made in Vermont, cascading out from between four buttery slices of featherweight pastry. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head, a situation that only got worse when tomato season ended and it dropped off the menu.
The cuts of meat and fish in the main courses are almost completely unadorned. This can make it hard to grasp just what is happening when you encounter the deep and long-lasting flavors Claud gets from, say, a butterflied trout in a pool of aioli and herb oil, or a charcoal-grilled pork chop with smoked onions, or a roast chicken cut into pieces with its juices. No doubt it helps that the chicken juices shimmer with rendered fat from foie gras, but that’s clearly not the whole story.
Like the wine list Sinzer helped tend at Ko, the one he oversees at Claud is guided more by tradition than trend, carries hard-to-procure vintages produced in minuscule quantities by winemakers who have dirt under their fingernails, is big on Burgundy and doesn’t have as many bottles below $75 as it should. This isn’t ideal for Claud, which is less luxurious than Ko and seems to want to turn us on to strange and unfamiliar stuff. The list of wines by the glass is better; it doesn’t rise much above $20 as it invites you to take a chance on, for instance, a zinfandel rosé from San Joaquin County in California.
Aside from some ceiling fixtures that look like lightbulb tacos, the dining area does not strain to get your attention. Very little about the appearance of Claud tells you that you are in one of the most impressive new restaurants that the East Village has seen in several years. It is decidedly not a chef’s counter, although a handful of seats do face the open kitchen, about halfway to the back door. There are no hushed recitations of ingredients and sources, or instructions on how best to transfer the food from your plate to your mouth. The service is calm, centered, down for whatever.
The most noticeable object in the whole place is the devil’s food cake that looms over a counter near the kitchen like a medieval fortress. Although there is a very fine pistachio Bundt to consider, and the ice creams are good, too — Pinsky and his cooks make all the desserts — the devil’s food cake is hard to forget once you’ve seen its half-dozen dark and glittering layers sprawling across a white dinner plate.
From then on you’ll start counting how many orders have left the counter and how many remain as the cake disappears wedge by wedge. — NYT