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Photography by Evan Sung

Pieces of April

by Adeena Sussman | Manhattan magazine | December 27, 2011

What makes for a perfect cold-weather outing? A restaurant that takes away the chill. For the nights when you should be rewarded simply for leaving the house, the Breslin Bar & Dining Room may very well be the Manhattan ideal, cozy and chic in all the right places. 

One way to enter the Breslin is to traverse the Ace Hotel’s lobby, a dim space which projects the vibe of a crack den for creatives, most of whom barely raise their hat-covered heads from the lulling acetylene-blue glow of Mac laptops.  

Once inside, it would behoove you to get familiar with the Breslin bar. Very familiar. Even on the restaurant’s slowest night, you’ll be biding time waiting to be seated. On a Tuesday your patience might be tried for a respectable 30 minutes; on a slammed Saturday it’s more like an hour plus. Many people end up making a full night of the front room, and why not? Five-dollar bowls of Southern-style boiled peanuts are bathed in hot lard, brilliantly transforming the shells into crispy chips and the centers into porky peanut butter. A Scotch egg is somehow soft-cooked to an ideal quivering state, then breaded and deep-fried—the greasy crunch practically begs to be paired with a cask ale, or one of the many beers available on tap or by the bottle. There’s a lovely wine list, too.

As the drinks do their work amid the visual mix of distressed ceilings, exposed insulation, taxidermy and porcine ephemera scattered about, it’s easy to get religion on chef April Bloomfield.  

Six years ago, only the city’s worldliest eaters had even heard of her and the fare with which she wooed Londoners at the River Café and Bibendum. Enter Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, who bought her a one-way ticket to NYC and set her up as chef and partner at the Spotted Pig, creating an instant culinary sensation. Bloomfield earned her respect with no-frills food that relies heavily on proteins and a sound technique. She’s a low-key lady; you’ll find her in the kitchen most nights at one of her three spots (she helms the John Dory Oyster Bar, also in the Ace).  

The centerpiece of the Breslin’s dining room is a large, round table set in front of the open kitchen, the work area’s bright glow throwing a spotlight on exhibitionist celebrities. There’s John Mayer, feigning obliviousness as he chats with a less-famous SNL cast member. There’s Wiz Khalifa (and his girlfriend, Kanye castoff Amber Rose), preening and eating salt-and-pepper potato chips. The rest of the joint is populated by casually dressed regular folk surprisingly varied in age, plus a few stars more interested in preserving their privacy than their waistlines. (Different nights over the past few months have seen Paul Rudd, Chloë Sevigny and Zooey Deschanel). 

The food is the restaurant’s great equalizer, much of it intended to be eaten with your hands. Most of it is very good. There are lamb scrumpets—shreds of tender meat, again breaded and fried—splashed with minty vinegar. A chicken-liver parfait is slicked with Madeira-wine jelly that you scoop up with crispy toasts, a grown-up take on PB&J that’ll leave you cold for Skippy. Order the board of house-made terrines—guinea hen pressed with morels, rabbit with prunes, dense headcheese (just eat it, don’t ask) served with delectably piquant pickles and a defiant mustard—and observe that like many of the plates, it’s visually worthy of an Old-World painting, simple and elemental and dark.  

And these are just the starters. Bloomfield seduces us into meaty supplication, building momentum for a carnivorous fantasy. A fatty pork chop is held back from overcooking, dressed with crispy baby potatoes. The two-person rib-eye is sauced with thick Béarnaise. The lamb burger, a signature dish, serves as a reprieve from the cliché of ground beef; it’s served pink and funky with a slab of feta, cumin-flecked mayo and a paper cone of greaseless potatoes thrice-fried in duck fat, little batons of guilt steamrolled by the greater impulse of satisfaction. 

Not every dish is a meaty sledgehammer, though. Lest you think the kitchen’s talents stop with the animal, there are veggies, salads and sides that would satisfy a committed Hungry Man: a salad of heirloom beans with silky chanterelles and seasonal greens; a special of delicata squash, edges charred like steak and topped with yogurt and the acidic burst of pomegranate seeds; a side of tender, almost bloody roasted beets. All are muscular dishes that connect logically with the chef’s bone-in talents, further enriching a nuanced menu. 

But for all the red meat on offer, the best dishes remain the vinegar-braised poussin, the richness of the dark meat relieved by the buttery-acidic tang of a gutsy pan sauce, and the curry mussels, ostensibly an appetizer that works just as well as a main. It’s a generous bowl of PEI bivalves swimming in a luscious, mildly spicy coconut broth dolloped with crème fraîche, planted with cilantro sprigs and the added surprise of chickpeas. Go ahead and drink the broth straight from the bowl—anyone who’s sampled the dish will forgive you. 

There’s just one thing missing here: a culinary confession booth. Forgive me father, for I’ve eaten far too many things—many of them submerged in oil. And now I’ve added insult to insulin with an entire pudding (that’s what they call dessert in England) of doughnuts accompanied by three sauces, including a boozy caramel that’s basically a hot toddy in a ramekin.  

To clear the conscience, go for a huckleberry and tart-yogurt sorbet sundae that washes the palate clean, a dispensation after so much debauchery.

You could leave the Breslin, but there’s an annoying spoken-work performance in the lobby, and it’s still really cold outside. A better choice would be to head back to the front bar. It’s open till 4am every night, the single malts and ports are flowing, and you probably haven’t yet tried the beef-and-Stilton pie. So settle in—it’s warm in here.

The Breslin

16 W. 29th St.

Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 12-4pm
Dinner: Daily, 5:30pm-12am
Brunch: Sat. and Sun., 7am-4pm
Late-night menu served until 4am

What it Costs
Appetizers/snacks: $5-$32
Entrees: $21-$48
Desserts: $3-$8 

What to Eat
Scrumpets, boiled peanuts, house-made crisps, homemade potato chips, scallops with pumpkin, mussels, vinegar-braised poussin, lamb burger, huckleberry sundae, doughnuts  

Black Keys, White Stripes, Allman Brothers 

Don’t Expect
White-tablecloth service in a brown-paper restaurant.

Where to Sit
The quieter second floor has additional seats, easing the crush a bit.