Friday, February 8, 2013

Prune: Hearts Cooked in Butter

Prune asks for your trust, then it asks for your love.

Hearts cooked in butter. A whole poached orange, served whole.  Sweet, saffron-colored slices of fall persimmon. The hostess’ fabulous beehive hairdo.

The last does not come on the menu, but what’s on offer this fall at Prune often, though not always, delights, surprises and finds itself easily loveable. With a confident hand, the kitchen produces the simple, understated cuisine of Gabrielle Hamilton, whose presence seems to linger in every perfectly polished soup spoon and pink-shirted server. Hamilton, who has worked hard to define a culinary voice very much her own, has a soft spot for butter, for salt and for the ethereal qualities of meat (her book, Blood, Bones and Butter, suggests as much). In her restaurant, she has cushioned her food by friendly, approachable service and one of the most inviting dining rooms in the city. More than anything, patrons must put faith in Hamilton as they work their way through a meal. They must trust that an uninspiring description for boiled ham with lima beans and cottage cheese is in fact a brilliant combination worthy of its place on the menu. They must trust the waiter who, when asked for suggestions, only responded, “Everything on the menu is good.”

For the most part, the trusting diner wins.

Braised fennel with Pernod butter and trout roe is a rich, filling dish which, through the transformative properties of butter, turns the bulb from light and crunchy to soft and intensely savory. The croque “mademoiselle,” a splayed, open-faced sandwich of bread, cheese and egg, hits all the right notes, recalling a childhood egg-in-a-hole and a well-crisped grilled cheese. Veal hearts, though served in winter, are nicely charred morsels of meat and muscle which taste every bite of a smoky summer barbeque. 

In one case, the truly lucky diner might opt for the most familiar of menu items: a cheeseburger and fries. Between the sharp cheddar, the meat (an impossibly juicy mixture of 80 percent beef and 20 percent lamb), and a generous slathering of parsley-shallot butter, you are in for mouthful after mouthful of pure calorific joy sandwiched between two unassuming English muffin halves. By the time you’ve reached all but the last bite of the burger, you must ask yourself, “Do I dare finish? For after this bite, it will be all gone.” It’s true love indeed.

Prune, now in its thirteenth year of business -- no small feat for a bite-sized restaurant in the East Village -- has a proven record for food, for flavor and for falling in love with fat. But not every dish will turn your heart to butter. Half an avocado dressed in olive oil and sea salt, sent out by the kitchen before the meal, seemed a lost wanderer on our table, and proved awkward to share. Likewise, a dessert of whole orange poached in simple syrup kept perfectly with Prune’s aesthetic, but drew little affection (one bite of the shimmering orange globe was plenty). A date “shake,” a warm and watery concoction which can only be categorized as a lackluster chai latte, felt like betrayal. How could our waiter misguide us like that?

“Everything on the menu is good,” he’d said.

Well, that’s because nearly everything is. And no relationship is perfect.  

54 East 1st St., New York, NY

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