Like lots of food-obsessed New Yorkers, my friend the Restaurant Vulture prides himself on his uncanny nose for impending disaster. “This place is doomed,” he’ll say as he casts his gimlet eye over some half-filled farm-to-table knockoff joint in Brooklyn, or a bloated midtown hotel menu featuring dated gimmicks like vegetal foams, rolling cheese carts, or $30 servings of seared foie gras. The Restaurant Vulture can tell by the timbre of the music issuing from the sound system whether that glitzy new big-box establishment on the fringes of Meatpacking Land will have staying power, or whether it will turn into what he calls a “two-month wonder.” He’s a connoisseur of location (corners are good, except on major avenues) and décor (“If I see one more distressed farm table …”), and if you mention passé terms like “Asian fusion” or “French brasserie,” he’ll make a face like someone who’s just swallowed a lemon.
The Restaurant Vulture’s lemon face was on full display the other day as we sat down to dinner at the new, deceptively modest bistro Calliope, which opened a month or so ago on the crowded corner of Second Avenue and 4th Street in the East Village. He objected to the name (“Hipster-twee,” he said with a sigh) and to the generic brasserie-style décor, which included a standard-issue smoked-glass mirror and rows of zinc-and-marble-topped tables that looked like they’d been lifted from a long-lost Keith McNally place. He objected to the clamorous Second Avenue location (“Bus fumes …”), which is even noisier when you sit in one of the café tables set up, somewhat awkwardly, on the sidewalk. But mostly, he took exception to Calliope’s menu, which contains the kind of staid southern-French bistro cooking (lobster-and-leek terrine, beef tongue with sauce gribiche, a “Provençal” tomato tart) that hasn’t been fashionable in this fickle town since the glory days of Julia Child.
But when the food began to arrive at this unexpectedly sophisticated little restaurant, the Vulture ceased his gloomy, incessantly downbeat chatter, and the beginnings of a slow, uneasy smile began to creep across his face. We enjoyed half a dozen clean, briny Sunken Meadow Gem oysters from Cape Cod (well chilled, with a simple mignonette sauce), and a bowl of cool tomato soup scattered with bits of fresh crab, which went nicely with the house bread, which is grilled and topped with an anchovy, garlic, and olive-oil paste. A suspicious-sounding fusion creation called spicy marinated mackerel with avocado (chunks of soft avocado and smoked mackerel are tossed with chile oil and black sesame seeds) disappeared within minutes of hitting the table (“Pretty damned good,” muttered the Vulture), as did a plate of simple eggs mayonnaise—perfectly cooked hard-boiled eggs smothered in a smooth, mustard-colored mayo handmade, the old-fashioned way, with olive oil, whipped egg yolks, and
a sprinkle of celery salt.
The cooks behind these unusually well-executed dishes are Eric Korsh, formerly of the Waverly Inn, and his wife, Ginevra Iverson, who used to work with Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune. Before migrating east, they ran a successful French restaurant in Northern California called Eloise, and like Hamilton, they have a fondness for melding rustic country goodness with classic, even elegant, Continental technique. Along with the beef tongue, the menu at Calliope features an admirable example of that other ancient nose-to-tail delicacy, tête du porc (pig’s head), cut in thin, melting ribbons and garnished with house-brined cornichons. Lighter eaters can nibble on pots of octopus salad tossed with anchovies, fingerling potatoes, and lemon confit, the aforementioned lobster-and-leek terrine (cut in thick, green slabs and drizzled with vinaigrette), or the fresh-baked tomato tart, which tastes like something you’d stumble on in one of the better neighborhood restaurants in the suburbs of Marseille or Nice.
Many of the entrées at Calliope have a similarly honest, unpretentious quality to them. The cooks roast fresh sea bass in a bundle of grape leaves and serve it in the time-honored Provençal style, in a pool of lemony pesto sauce, with a pot of fresh-made ratatouille. The two house pastas—eggy strips of pappardelle tossed with rabbit and English peas, malfatti ricotta dumplings with Swiss chard soaked in luxurious amounts of brown butter—are as good as anything you’ll find in the far-flung pasta empires of Messrs. Batali and White. My friend the Lamb Nut declared that her braised lamb (with mascarpone agnolotti) had “the perfect saltiness, the perfect thickness, the perfect char.” Similar comments were made about the crispy roast chicken, and the halibut, which is balanced on toasted ciabatta spread with romesco sauce and set in a rich, steamy mussels-and-saffron broth.
The Vulture thinks that the food at Calliope might actually be too good for its scruffy, slightly marginal East Village location, and he could be right. The brasserie is less a culinary destination these days than a neighborhood staple, and on my visits, many of the semi-dazed-looking clientele in the half-empty room looked interested less in the delicate quality of their rabbit pappardelle, say, than in whiling away an hour or two over a glass of wine. One hopes that with time (and perhaps some good word of mouth) this will change. Like the savory dishes, the desserts at Calliope are simple and small in number but pack an outsize punch. There’s a smooth, properly wobbly wheel of panna cotta, a deeply chocolaty chocolate tart drizzled with sticky hazelnut sauce, and a golden, crispy-edged apple tart. Most improbably delicious of all is the spongy-soft baba au rhum brioche, which is sliced in half, doused with Diplomático Reserva rum, and crowned with a cloud of whipped cream, just the way the grand French chefs used to do back when they were the kings of the world, and Manhattan their playground.
84 E. 4th St., nr. Second Ave.; 212-260-8484
Hours: Monday through Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $8; entrées, $17 to $32.
Ideal Meal: Eggs mayonnaise and spicy marinated mackerel with avocado, Provençal tomato tart or rabbit pappardelle with English peas, halibut in saffron broth, baba au rhum.
Note: The weekend brunch features an excellent sable-and-salmon plate (house-smoked, of course) and one of the better haute burgers in the vicinity.
Scratchpad: One star for the modest, well-curated brasserie menu, and another for the accomplished old-world technique.
This story appeared in the August 6, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.