In a city thoroughly accustomed to restaurant turnover, it takes a lot for a renovation to stir up nostalgia. Even the final dismantling of Le Bec-Fin this summer drew a collective yawn from a large portion of the city’s foodies. But the dignified former showroom of florist H.H. Battles on South 12th Street is another story.
Its sweeping fantail staircase, framed by balconies of near-ornamental slenderness, served as a dramatic centerpiece for a succession of restaurants ending with Les Bon Temps in 2009. When the next tenants gutted the (rot-ridden) space top to bottom to make Tweed, the remodelers got no end of grief about it. So much, indeed, that when I asked architect Sam Shaaban about the staircase’s fate a few years ago, he told me it had been “surgically disassembled” and “stored in an undisclosed location where it can’t be trampled to death by staircase fanatics.”
Tweed’s closure was schadenfreude time for those zealots and others who bemoaned that restaurant’s antiseptic postmodernism. But I hope they don’t hold the original sin against Pennsylvania 6, because although the old staircase hasn’t returned, a surprisingly winning vision has.
Yes, it includes Ferrari red banquettes and huge black-and-white society shots from Hollywood’s golden age—but the decor manages to hit a lighthearted sweet spot between straight-up kitsch and stilted irony. More importantly, former XIX chef Marc Plessis has found a sweet spot of his own in this straight-ahead bistro and raw bar. His ingredients are artisanal but not necessarily local, and his cooking strikes a fine balance between imagination and restraint.
Witness the braised Duroc collar (richer than shoulder but leaner than belly) that sank into stone-milled Georgia grits in early summer. There was a contemporary touch of smoked paprika, and unexpectedly riveting Vidalia spring onions that beat every local ramp I’d eaten the month before. Good luck finding a better pork entrée.
Creativity rules the raw bar in the form of Plessis’s outstanding crudos, like kampachi with gooseberry salsa and unusually aromatic cumin salt, or dilly sockeye with fennel and pickled mustard seeds. But simplicity delivers equal pleasures, as in the good Vermont burrata he has the self-discipline to just serve as-is, with grilled baguette points and sun-dried tomato tapenade. Or dynamite fried soft-shell clams with classic lemon aioli. Or a lobster roll that rocks precisely because Plessis adheres to the time-tested template and puts his signature instead on the dip for his duck-fat fries: a sherry vinegar aioli heady with shaved truffle.
Aside from the worst steak in recent memory and one poorly executed crudo, Penn 6 ran the tables from drinks (try the eight-year rum with Pimm’s and sage) to the tangy goat-cheese-yogurt and espresso gelatos that distinguished dessert. A bistro can only really aim for an extra-base hit, but the Battles building’s new tenant reaches second standing up.