Stroll the village.
It has been a long time since the West Village was the habitat of the beats and the hip; the tangled postfederal streetscape had to attract the wealthy from a city otherwise lacking in human scale or easy domesticity. Most of the raffish holes on Bleecker Street are gone; now it resembles a smarter and prettier Madison Avenue laced with the likes of Lulu Guinness, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, James Perse and Cynthia Rowley.
This remains the prettiest part of Manhattan--pride of place for the city as a whole goes to Brooklyn Heights--but unlike the Heights, the Village has managed to remain a legitimate eating and shopping destination. Back on Bleecker, record shops stocked with actual vinyl and junk shops with affordable finds survive along with Murray’s Cheese and Faicco’s, and Faicco’s still stocks fresh cotechino in what Le Caprice considers a conservative culinary town.
Many of Manhattan’s few British outposts huddle here too. Meyer’s of Keswick does not stock much, it is expensive and the staff oscillates from congenial to crabby, but what they stock is good; pies and pasties, Cumberland sausage, dried marrowfat peas, Branston beetroot pickle, canned haggis from Chicago, fabulous Tiptree Little Scarlet Strawberry Conserve (at $12.95 for a paltry 12 ounces, but Garden of Eden charges an even fiercer $16.99). The hot and haughty Spotted Pig inhabits the old Black Sheep over on far West Eleventh, although tables for mortals are scarce.
Our favorite stretch right now, however, is West Tenth athwart Waverly Place. After scoring some Marvis ginger mint toothpaste from Bigelow’s over at Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street, head north and west to Tenth Street and duck into Grahame Fowler.
You will want to drop a few dimes. The shop’s appearance is terrific in a sort of British steampunk manner. A big ship's lamp with lingering traces of paint glows through the window. Imaginative shirts in lively fabrics fly from a laundry conveyor that steps from shoulder height to ceiling; the place had been a dry cleaner and Fowler moved the storage gear forward for display. The railing clanks and moves; it is oddly festive. Vintage flags--Royal Navy white ensigns and Princess Margaret’s standard--jostle his own artwork made from recycled fabric, school ties and superimposed silkscreen. This is no irritating outpost of ersatz Anglophilia; instead, it has a fundamental authenticity stamped with provocative style. Grahame Fowler is the antidote to Ralph Lauren Rugby.
Fowler comes from the London School of Street Fashionomics that flourished at the turn of our century; he knows the Workers for Freedom and supplied Demob with fabric lines. At one point he engaged sixty weavers, knitters and cutters on several stories in Acton Town; he was William Morris redux, and harnessed the Arts & Crafts philosophy to modern sensibility. Now Fowler tailors clothing in New York for both women and men from elegant materials that include Japanese cotton, textured silk, oiled canvas and printed corduroy; the Black Watch jeans are unusual, knowing and elegantly cut. He offers vintage belts and recycles old fabrics for new uses, including bags. To us, the ecofriendliness of reuse takes a distant row to the detailed and snapping elegance of the work.
Fowler also has the chunky and classic Tricker’s boots, clever ties and little bears adorned with martial patches. His jackets are strange and beautiful, cut long in front and high behind; the cuff buttons really button in the bespoke manner and alterations are free.
Take a breather to decide how much money you want to give Mr. Fowler and pass the Highlands Café (it does not open until 6 pm) to visit a pair of contrapuntal bookshops. The first is Three Lives & Company; the second, Bonnie Slotnick. The name of Three Lives apparently originates from one of Gertrude Stein’s writings but otherwise there is nothing unfortunate about the place. It is attractive, uncluttered and serene; the stock is limited but well chosen. A small food and cooking section includes titles by Heston Blumenthal, Elizabeth David, Simon Hopkinson, Agnes Jekyll in a beautiful Persephone edition and other good British (and of course other) writers. They carry many of the wonderful and otherwise lost modern fiction classics reissued in attractive paperback by The New York Review of Books, a good selection of literature in translation and some interesting current nonfiction. There is a big bank of general, serious fiction, old and new, and there are nice cards, including one with a facsimile cover from an edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The shop sells discreet rather than garish ‘Three Lives’ T-shirts.
You will not get a discount here; full freight, however, is justified by the courteous, knowledgeable staff and the pleasure of browsing for surprises. We have no idea how Three Lives manages to survive the ravages inflicted on independent booksellers by the chainstores and internet but we wish it the best; it is the kind of place we want in our neighborhood instead of the crappy ghetto of shallow bestsellers and fraudulent self-help that is our Barnes & Noble branch.
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks is not a particularly pleasant place. It is a little careworn, the number of titles is not extensive, and the eponymous owner is hardly personable. She thinks she knows more than you and wants you to know it. Prices are not cheap. Her assistant Chris, however is friendly, funny and helpful. In addition, the shop is one of only a few left that specializes in used cookbooks; it also stocks facsimiles of numerous good old titles; it is crammed with books nearly to the point of claustrophobia, which is nice; and it is reasonably well organized, although Ms. Slotnick must consider herself a feminist because a section of ‘great ladies’ (many of them those welcome facsimiles), ranging from Hannah Glasse to Elizabeth David, is shelved across the room from the other British titles. This is misguided and confusing.
The secondhand British selection has not been particularly strong during any of our visits, and Ms. Slotnick never has found a title that I have inquired about (she also runs a search service for obscure books), but she does tend to stock eccentric Indian publications and some of the rare books are interesting and handsome. This remains an worthwhile destination, however; a flawed shop with a decent selection of venerable cookbooks is more than we can expect anymore in most cities. There are notable exceptions elsewhere in New York, in Boston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Portland (Maine), Cheltenham over in Gloucestershire, London and elsewhere; britishfoodinamerica will return to them.
Eat at Highlands.
Now, however, you should return to make your purchases from Grahame Fowler before he closes at seven o’clock. Then, on to the best part of the day; get to Highlands early so you can claim a table (no reservations) before a horde of attractive, smartly dressed (in ‘I made an effort’ clothes) babes and boys descends upon the place. Even so, kids are welcome too.
Highlands is small and loud, but the noise of conversation is lovely. It has two good rooms that somehow seem both spare and warm, but as usual the bar is the better one. In the dining room, a wall of exposed brick faces stunning avian wallpaper from Timinus Beauties in Glasgow. This is New York, however, and tiny tables sit tight. The bar is undecorated but for the head of a stag; steel joins more brick lighted by clear bulbs with big glowing filaments strung in line above the bar.
The proprietors have an eye for detail; the façade is glassy plate, squeegeed to illuminate the dining room but left misty in the bar to lend mystery and atmosphere. The iron load-bearing columns from Edinburgh in the barroom are delicately fluted and more attenuated than their muscular American counterparts. Votives and winter plants rim the floor of the chilly entry; useful and pretty double coathooks run below the bartop; wineglasses are big and good; coffee arrives with a jug of whole milk and a small British spoon cradled in the handle of the cup. There is no trace of tartan, except on the cushions of the mismatched chairs and the backs of the staff, who pick their own plaids.
Maybe best of all is the wallpaper in the lone bathroom (they really could use another one). It is one of those toile prints of bucolic rural scenery, except that it is not. On inspection the setting is an urban park, complete with addict shooting up, decrepit housing project and other signs of squalor. The artist also depicts the least recognized of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow landmarks (the paper is by the same Timinus Beauties), Queen’s Cross Church.
150-152 West 10th St., New York, NY 10014
The business plan is efficient but requires a smart, motivated staff. Highlands has one. The plan combines sophisticated cocktails with casual and, for the United States, exotic dining. The bar follows the current fad for elaborate cocktails, with a Scottish twist; bartending here requires knowledge, skill and speed. Highlands is most definitely a bright signal in the cocktail circuit judging from the variegated glasses of bright liquids held by many of its occupants. Beer is stellar if not cask (“Brooklyn,” according to Steve Iannacone, the bar’s affable distributor, “is more advanced.”); Wells’ Bombadier and other ales, from Scottish craft brewers, Red Hook’s Six Points and elsewhere join in regular rotation.
As noted, Highlands is not just some cocktail lounge with a nod to bar food; the kitchen is serious and not a mere cost center. The menu is short and Scottish, no burgers or wings, and the wine list limited but apt, with a slant to what the British call ‘New World’ producers from both sides of the equator and around the globe. Prices are fair. A Keith Tullock Pinot Gris was revelatory, big and bossy but also deft; it escaped the slightly cloying finish of the fuller bodied Tokay Pinot Gris from Alsace. Australia produces a lot of jammy fruit bombs but this grape belongs in the Antipodes.
On our visits there were seven starters and a snack, four mains and another four sides. We sampled nothing but good food at Highlands. A starter of cockles (on an American menu!) steamed in that Pinot Gris was briny, as it should be, and more than big enough for two, good value at $15. They cure their own salmon. Cod ($21) is a good test of any kitchen and Highlands passes; the fish was cooked just to flaky under a brittle crust strewn with capers alongside superb bubble and squeak, which they should add to their list of sides. It also came with frisee, dressed with a milder version of bfia’s own Driving Shoe Dressing. Tasting Table has good things to say about a vegetarian entrée, mushroom shepherd’s pie. The haggis (from New Jersey), served with its indispensable turnip and mash, has crunch and flavor; the haggis bread served with charcuterie is sublime. Scotland has a deep tradition of great curries that a soup of finnan haddock and squash upheld, but the Editor’s favorite offering was a big faggot (on an American menu!).
For the uninitiated, faggots are agglomerations of pork, pork liver, onions and seasonings that should include sage. They are ground, shaped and nestled in caul fat for cooking. Faggots appear all over Britain, but are most associated with the north of England and Scotland and they can be delicious. Highlands served the first one we have found west of the Arrans and the best one we have tasted anywhere. Another American first for us was use of pork liver at all; it usually and sadly only finds its way to the dog food factory on this side of the sea. The faggot came with onion marmalade and applesauce, which was good even if our savory version would have been better. All this for only $18 (the haggis weighed in at $19).
Our waitress was friendly, efficient and patient, too; she put up with all our questions and happily allowed us to linger over glasses of superb Compass Box Spice Tree whisky even though she could have used the table, because the descent on Highlands accelerates by eight o’clock. Throughout our visit a thought kept cycling; the place is packed, the food is good, the drink is good, the cost is low, this is New York, they don’t have to be this nice; but, they are. The skulking and surly bar staff at the Breslin should take notice.