Susan La Tempa's Cheese Focaccia
Barbuto's Bucatini with Tuna

A Night at Prune

I haven't been able to post for a while - I went out of town this past weekend for a few days along the Hudson River Valley. Lots of delicious cooking and eating occurred, but I didn't document a single dish. Back in the saddle now! Although this post will take a quick divergence from the newspaper competition...and instead delve briefly into the pleasures of a good restaurant in New York. For many people, Prune is no longer the hidden gem it used to be. The chef and owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, has long become a familiar name in world of food and restaurants and cooks who long to set themselves apart from the traditional cooking world by using humble ingredients and straightforwardly fabulous cooking, thereby creating a dining experience that reminds one both of home cooking and the kind of dinner one can only have once in a blue moon.

My first meal at Prune is a bittersweet memory I don't think I'll ever forget. In the weeks after September 11th, we all walked the streets in a fog of shock and grief and depression. I found it so hard to muster up the ability to have an appetite. Food was purely fuel to get a body through another day. It seemed frivolous and beside the point to enjoy a meal when so many people were still missing their loved ones, and we were still grappling with the magnitude of what had happened to us and our city. Food completely lost its allure for me.

On one of the weekends after the disaster, my father got in his car and drove down from Boston to visit me. We set out from my apartment on the Upper West Side and walked all the way down the west side of the city, through Lincoln Center and Hell's Kitchen and the Garment District and Chelsea, ending up in the West Village, where we sat outside at a now-closed bar and drank a  beer together. The streets were empty, as they had been for weeks, and we talked and were silent, alternately, until we got hungry. Then we made our way across town to Prune. It was early and the restaurant was mostly empty. We ordered haphazardly - I vaguely remember fried chicken livers and lentils and a salad of sorts. Whatever was placed before us was delicious and comforting and gave me a sense of warmth and ease that I realized, in that moment, had been missing for quite some time.

Last night, my colleagues and I had a client in from out of town. Prune seemed like the perfect choice for a dinner together. For those who don't know it, it's in the East Village, on a small strip of 1st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. We got there early - we might have even been the first customers of the evening. We were given boiled peanuts sprinkled with cayenne and salt to nibble on while we read the menus. The appetizers and side dishes and bar plates were more appealing than the main courses, and so we decided to order from those. To start, we had sardines with Triscuits and cornichons and a generous dab of mustard, a salad of shaved artichoke and celery and Parmigiano, a bowl of boiled cauliflower showered with bread crumbs that were toasted in generous helpings of toasted beurre noisette, and a plate of aged goat cheese with sliced red onion and buttered brown bread. By the end of the first course, three of us had converged on the empty bowl of buttered bread crumbs and were fighting for the last scraps.

The second round included a couple plates of succotash (in this case, creamed corn with green beans - everybody has a different version of this), a toasted potato galette, lamb brochettes on a small salad of rhubarb and mint, fried sweetbreads with bacon and capers, and a plate of pasta sheets folded around a poached egg and shredded French ham, sitting on a bed of wilted spinach and covered with toasted pine nuts and lashings of a butter and vinegar sauce. The winner by far was the plate of sweetbreads - meltingly tender and white on the inside and crispy-crunchy on the outside. The pasta plate was admirable to look at and contemplate, but I found the actual eating of it a bit difficult. Bits and pieces of pasta kept flopping into the sauce and the flavors clashed a bit.

Because we'd kept our orders to small plates, we were still going by the time the dessert menus were handed out. There were two specials: a summer bread pudding and a yogurt panna cotta. We ordered both of those, plus a ginger beer float and a chocolate bread pudding. The winner by far was the summer bread pudding - spongy and light and crammed full with berry flavors, juices and seeds, with a dollop of citrus-scented whipped cream on top. The panna cotta was nicely acidic and fruity. The ginger beer float was the strangest mix of textures and flavors - it was by far the most interesting dessert on the tongue. At first sip, the flavors were harsh, but then they melded together nicely. The chocolate bread pudding was totally average - in fact the chocolate flavor almost reminded me of a chocolate drink mix from my childhood.

By the time we left, the restaurant was packed to the gills and humming with activity. Around us people were sucking on langoustines, smearing bread with fresh burrata (at $18 a plate!) and lapping up the juices from a plate previously brimming with fresh tomatoes, herbs and oil. Our check had come with a lychee for each of us, and the floral taste of  it lingered in my mouth as we walked out onto the street and into the breezy night. I can't wait to go back.