New York’s Chelsea Market is a warren of food shops and eateries where you can find pretty much everything and anything. Just wandering around it is half the fun. Now a new place that is an offshoot of one in NoMad has taken a space as both a café and a furnishings-kitchen store named Blackbarn.
It’s a very pretty place, brightly lighted, with the goods arrayed in the entry room (you can apparently buy many of the utensils, glassware and linens used in the café) and the spacious dining area overlooking the street. It’s casual in the most unaffected way, although the pillowed banquettes’ backs are set so far back from the table that you have to slouch down on them like a pouty child for back support. The wicker chairs are quite comfortable, the noise level moderate, the lighting buoyant and there’s a counter at the open kitchen.
Chef-owner John Doherty has been a pro in the New York restaurant business since the late 1980s, mainly as the long-running executive chef overseeing all the food service at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, beginning at the age of 19 and becoming executive chef at 27. (Oh, the stories he could tell!) He left that job a decade ago and two years ago opened the first Blackbarn on East 26th, a much larger, much louder restaurant than the Café, with a longer menu. At the new branch, opened last December, Doherty has re-fashioned the menu along the idea of “healthy eating,” a moniker that makes me wince, simply because I don’t know of any foods that are un-healthy if consumed in reasonable amounts.
Nevertheless, Blackbarn’s menu is heavily dependent on vegetables and grains, with most of the proteins saved for the main courses. The results, I’m happy to report, are impressive on every level.
Let’s pretend it is a vegetarian restaurant for a moment, in which case those so inclined to such a diet will be as thrilled as I was by Blackbarn’s mushroom toast spread with Robiola cheese, Taleggio, Parmigiano and watercress ($15), and the smoked eggplant hummus with roasted vegetables, fried plantain and gremolata ($16). The charred Brussels sprouts salad with apple butter, roasted red onion, apple and jalapeño chutney ($16) was a big hit at my table of four, as was a stack of fat Portobello mushrooms atop a polenta cake with crispy kale, roasted carrots and frisée lettuce ($17).
Doherty adds crunch and creaminess, smoke and sweetness to most everything, so the pan-roasted artichoke hearts with hen of the woods mushrooms, eggplant hummus and tahini-lemon dressing ($17) marry well together in a very hearty dish. The white pizza with truffle oil, porcini and sweet caramelized onions ($18) is something the whole table will gobble up fast.
All portions are generous, with main courses even more so, from Spanish octopus with a black bean puree, zucchini, a touch of chili and gremolata($19). For the decidedly non-vegetarian there is a hefty New York strip streak doused with garlic and served with asparagus, buttery fingerling potatoes, baby onions and an assertive salsa verde ($25). It’s like a more flavorful version of carnitas and remarkably modest in price. Only a chicken Milanese with arugula, green beans, asparagus and balsamic dash ($20) was run-of-the-mill.
All the desserts ($9) we tried were homey and good, including chocolate crèmeux with rich vanilla mousse; almond cake with an autumn cherry compote; forbidden black rice pudding with passion fruit mousse and pineapple compote; and a terrific rum-laced, butterscotch-lavished bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and toffee sauce.
Blackbarn’s wine list is disappointingly limited both in scope and labels, but the prices, averaging about $64 a bottle, are welcome indeed.
Blackbarn Café is trying hard for all the best reasons to be a very good, very economical, very comfortable restaurant, and even if sticking little “GF” (gluten-free), “VEG” (vegetarian) and “V” (vegan) symbols next to each dish may be a little too “PC” for the omnivore, just ignore them and have a wonderful night out in Chelsea. You may even take home some forks and knives or placemats on your way out.
448 West 16th Street (near Eighth Avenue)