A boomlet in more or less British bars serving food has hit New York during the last few months, spurred at least in part by the runaway success of The Spotted Pig and undeterred by the failure of the same team’s John Dory. Among these newcomers are The Breslin, also from The Spotted Pig crew, Clerkenwell and Highlands. It is premature to determine whether the boomlet will boom rather than wither, but in the main this development is encouraging to us at britishfoodinamerica.
We qualify our enthusiasm because of The Breslin, coincidentally reviewed on 13 January in The New York Times (one star). The celebrity April Bloomfield (“well known to food crazies in New York" according to the Times reviewer) runs a kitchen tilted toward pork, dairy and cholesterol in general, not necessarily a bad thing, but we cannot say; the place is so jammed with self-styled tastemakers that the wait for a table at even remotely appealing hours requires, well, hours.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room
The Ace Hotel 20 W. 29th Street, New York, NY 10001
We decided to check into the bar as a preliminary. It is located in the Ace hotel, which is located at 29th and Broadway, in one of the last scruffy precincts of midtown. Its neighboring establishments hawk cheap clothing, costume jewelry, phone cards, cartons of cigarettes, perfumes of dubious provenance. We approached the main entrance to the Ace, where we encountered two engaging doormen whom we confused in our naivete with loitering refugees from the East Village; they wore identikit peacoats, fashionably worn (as in out, not attired) jeans and three-day beards. After they swept us into the atmospheric lobby, a maitre’d or something, costumed out of Philips Andover or Yale, amiably ushered us over to the bar--The Breslin itself, although there also is a little one tucked behind big library tables manned by the languidly louche with their laptops in the lobby--where we encountered yet another kindly member of staff, this time the pretty hostess who has to referee the usual scrum for tables.
The room is nice. It rise two stories, it is dark, dark, dark and if it lacks the homely clutter of The Spotted Pig it has the saloony feel of the Old Town Tavern or P.J. Clarke’s.
It was only about 5 pm on a Saturday dreary with drizzle, the week before Christmas, so we walked right up to seats at the bar and settled in for a long winter’s night of trying to engage the bar staff, then outnumbering its customers like Persians at Thermopylae. Despite the hush, questions asked of one bartender elicited a silent stare. In what turns out to be a misguided stab at cross-marketing they all wear Spotted Pig shirts at The Breslin (meaning that The Pig treats its customers like The Breslin people treat theirs?). Attitude ranged from studiously detached to borderline hostile and all of them exhibited an impressive self-discipline in looking through us. None of them betrayed any inclination to serve drinks but eventually and after strenuous gyrations that devolved into self-parody we got our expensive pints, which the bartender had the grace to fill two-thirds of the way to the top. When they get around to pouring anything at The Breslin they spill a lot of it; the bartop was by turns sticky and sodden. It is a uniquely New York privilege to pay a premium for this kind of thing.
Halfway through our drinks, welcome and decent but unfortunately not well-conditioned or competently handled cask ale (they do not really know what they are doing), we noticed that we were no longer nearly alone. The place was packed and it was perversely gratifying to observe that nobody else merited drinks either: Even less infrequent or unworthy patrons get stiffed. We smelled a whiff of rebellion along with the stale beer (lack of hygiene or stab at ‘authenticity?’) as rueful laughter, raunchy swearing and righteous entreaties bounced from the melee behind us toward the zombic bartenders. They are awful and, in their defense, inept; panic rarely promotes a pleasant demeanor.
It is only fair to note that at one point a supervisor swept behind the bar and forcefully reprimanded the nasty bunch for its behavior, although without much effect.
Clerkenwell is on the Lower East Side across from WD 50. It is a welcome contrast to The Breslin, small, calm and friendly on a Sunday afternoon. They still were offering brunch and had begun to serve traditional Sunday roast with all its trimmings to a table of twenty and, if the lone waitress was understandably harried she was both gracious and graceful. The place is pretty and the food smells good; we have not yet had a chance to eat there either. Like Highlands, they have terrific wallpaper in the bathroom and could use another one, but rents in New York are high so squeezing in covers is vital to survival.
The selection of draft beer is unfortunately generic (the usual Bass/Guinness/Stella and kin on our visit) but they have big bottles of Prince Charles’ organic Duchy Original ale at a reasonable $8 (the Odeon across town charges $12) along with Hobgoblin dark ale from Witney outside of Oxford, not such good value for a smaller bottle at the same price but delicious and hard to find. Clerkenwell also stocks Caruba rum, the only bar we have yet found anywhere that does so.
The owners used to live in Exmouth Market on the northern reach of Clerkenwell in London (aha!) and the influence of Moro, a sort of Anglo-North African restaurant there, is apparent in the dish of roast mackerel with green olives, raisins and celery. Moro is among our favorite restaurants (their ‘crab brik’ alone, a crunchy turnover filed with spiced, um, crab, is worth the airfare) and it is nice to see mackerel on an American menu. Clerkenwell is brave. Other than a Provencal salmon the other dishes are creatively British. We wish Clerkenwell the best and will return with a posse for dinner soon.
49 Clinton St., New York, New York 10002
www.clerkenwellnyc.com 212-614-3234 photo: Ryan Charles/Zagat Survey