A Twist of the Knife

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The New York Sun

Passers-by can be forgiven for thinking a simple new pub has opened in the East Village. Given Knife + Fork’s tall bar, prominent beer taps, unprepossessing name, and general cozy, casual scene, you think you recognize what kind of place you’ve walked into. Maybe the chef-owner, Damien Brassel, is behind the bar getting himself a quick glass of water, and his Irish accent solidifies the pub impression. You’re about to ask him for a burger or a fish sandwich when you catch sight of the menu, and stop short.

Mr. Brassel cooks wild flights of fancy, juxtaposing ingredients according to a private aesthetic that is not logic but may be art. In one startling starter, he sets a filet of Spanish mackerel on a bed of passion-fruit-flavored tapioca gel ($12). The inspiration might be the way the tapioca looks like fresh-laid fish eggs under the fish, but the flavor pairing, of strong-tasting fresh mackerel and mouth-fillingly tart passionfruit, remains counterintuitive bite after bite. This is discomfort food. One night the chef paired seared foie gras ($14) with what tasted like unsweet mint-chocolate ganache, as well as morel mushrooms and a slightly bitter saffron-poached pineapple wedge; another night, black pudding and apple-cinnamon puree kept the liver company.

The chef’s arsenal of techniques – pickling, poaching, crusting – is proudly on display as well. His cured salmon ($12) comes in a hunk, not fine slices, which allows its delicate texture to manifest strongly, under a leafy coat of fresh herbs. Several dishes feature “overnight tomato,” wherein long cooking under a heat lamp gives the vegetable deep, sweet, roasted flavor.

Sometimes the collision of flavors and techniques seems to favor process over product, as though the chef is having a great time playing around, and hang the customers if they don’t like it. A tender, slightly game-flavored piece of venison ($24) is rubbed with licorice and cooked to a near-char on the outside while the inside remains red and juicy. The warm, sweet licorice mingles oddly with the flavor of the meat, with the accompanying mild salad of orchid petals, and with a parsnip puree that kitchen wizardry renders deliberately sour.The components are delicious, but it’s tough to grasp the improvisatory harmony among them: It’s kind of like strolling through the woods and taking random bites of whatever you pass.

Not everything is so outre. One of the best starters involves a hefty nugget of goat cheese ($11), seared until its surface is toasty and interior melty, and served on a disk of succulent polenta, with overnight tomato and parmesan cream sauce adding depth. A lamb loin entree ($25), crusted with spicy cornmeal, doesn’t try any tricks at all. It’s served on a plate paved with mild goat cheese, and a tomato tapenade adds to the sunny, easygoing nature of the dish.

Desserts ($7 each) are surprisingly tame, too: pistachio panna cotta, chocolate-orange or chocolate-mint pot de creme, simple fresh strawberries tossed with balsamic vinegar. All exhibit the vibrant flavor that characterizes Knife + Fork, but little of the eccentricity.

Tireless in the small kitchen, the chef labors exactingly over each dish. His dedication is impressive to watch, but it means there can be a noticeable wait between courses. At $45, a six-course chef’s-choice menu is a deal and an enjoyable romp through the crannies of Mr. Brassel’s vision, but it’s also an investment of several hours.

In addition to the two cold, bitter German beers on tap ($8), which stand up excellently to the cooking’s vivid flavors, the restaurant pours some 50 diverse wines.They range from likable bargains, such as three simple varietals – a chardonnay, a shiraz, and a cab, each $7 a glass or $24 a bottle from Australia’s Knife + Fork label (no relation) – through Spain, Italy, Frog’s Leap and Stag’s Leap, up to France’s premiers crus. I’m not sure I’d want to introduce Colin-Deleger’s stodgy, highly rated Chassagne-Montrachet ($115) to Mr. Brassel’s passionfruit mackerel, but it’s there in the cellar for those who do.

If Knife + Fork is to thrive, it really oughtn’t lure in an unsuspecting audience only to shock them. Whether you enjoy this sort of meal hinges on your expectations, and I worry that Knife + Fork’s pubby environment sets the wrong ones, refreshing though its casual mood may be. Gleeful culinary experimentation, full of novel twists and turns and carried out with such deft skill, can be a joy to experience. However, so can simple comfort cuisine, and to receive one when you’re hoping for the other could be disastrous.

Knife + Fork, 108 E. 4th St., between First and Second avenues, 212-228-4885.

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