For years, one of Eleven Madison Park’s favorite party tricks has been inviting diners midway through the meal to have a drink in the kitchen. If you accept, you will be led to a spot against the back wall behind a shallow ledge that looks something like a communion rail. There you stand as an elaborate cocktail is mixed, narrated and poured. You get to check out the cooks at their stations, and they get to check you out.
Given that Eleven Madison Park is the equivalent of Harvard for ambitious young cooks and servers, the checking out always seemed especially intense when I walked into the kitchen during a review meal. Dozens of workers from the garde-manger station to the glassware pantry would size me up and, no doubt, commit my features to memory for the day when I would slink into some new place where they were trying to make their own fame and fortune.
Those viewing parties come to mind each time I drop in to see a new restaurant with a chef who once worked at Eleven Madison Park. There is James Kent at Crown Shy, Austin Johnson at One White Street, and Christian Rowan of Marian’s, among others. And last year, the space on Bleecker Street that used to hold John Fraser’s the Loyal was taken over by a pair of Eleven Madison Park alumni. Andrew Quinn runs the kitchen and Cedric Nicaise is in charge of the dining room and wine. They call their place the Noortwyck.
Like those other chefs, Mr. Quinn is exacting and precise, with a whole arsenal of skills and a minimalist sensibility that calls for most of the technical stuff to be tucked quietly into dishes that look simple and straightforward, even when they’re not.
Those chefs must know that it would be pointless to compete directly with Eleven Madison Park, so they’ve all planted their flags somewhere on the middle ground between its Michelin-bait grandeur and the come-as-you-are informality of a local tavern. They invite the neighborhood inside.
At the Noortwyck, you don’t take a field trip to the kitchen for a cocktail. You can, though, slip from Bleecker Street into the bar up front, which is usually buzzing with regulars by 6 p.m., and order something from a list of not-too-show-offy drinks. Though the full-strength cocktails are skillfully made, I kept coming back to a nonalcoholic one, the Shift Drink, a grapefruit-and-ginger-beer cooler in a tumbler filled with ice pebbles.
Traffic at the bar and the small cafe tables around it seems to thin out after 8 p.m. As for the dining room, a clean and elegantly unadorned space anchored by long banquettes in Cognac-toned velvet and leather, it will probably be busy whenever you go.
You will probably want to start with raw seafood, which Mr. Quinn handles with some imagination. Fluke ceviche is arresting in its bath of green leche de tigre that is extracted from celery, cucumber, limes and herbs. Shucked oysters are dressed with a bright-red and garden-fresh hot sauce under slivers of pickled green tomatoes.
A one-ounce tin of caviar comes to the table with crème fraîche and steaming-hot scones flecked with chives. This is $70, more than anything else on the menu except a roast chicken for two, which is $10 more. If you find sturgeon roe a little too rich but like the sound of the scones, consider one of the other baked goods on the appetizer menu. The braided Parker House rolls are wonderful, topped with flax and sunflower seeds; to eat the rolls you pull them apart like monkey bread.
I would also order the beignets again, partly just to see the ribbons of shaved tête de Moine cheese wilting over their tops — even though I’d probably call them gougères. The baked milk buns filled with duck char siu are delicious, too — good enough to stand on their own without the whipped foie gras butter on the side, which gets a little messy when you slather it on.
Mr. Quinn has a keen sense of what makes a good salad. Pink, green and white leaves of chicory are arrayed over a bed of fromage blanc, to soften their bitterness. And the Noortwyck’s kale salad is not quite like other kale salads; shaved Gouda adds its crystalline, caramel sweetness to the greens, which are showered with toasted pine nuts and garnished, unexpectedly, with slices of pickled apples.
The pastas I tried have been overcomplicated. My luck was better with the main courses, which show off Mr. Quinn’s ability to keep multiple ideas singing in tune. There is a creamy steamed halibut fillet cloaked in a buttery parsley-vermouth sauce, served over chanterelles and tiny saffron-scented gnocchi. More forcefully, there is the charcoal-grilled duck breast, meaty and bittersweet under its rub of molasses and other barbecue-sauce flavors (not ketchup, though).
Does the tender belly of porcelet still attached to a crisp and expertly rendered tan lid of skin remind anyone else of the brick of fat-basted suckling pig that Daniel Humm used to cook, before he gave up meat? There are similarities, even if it does not make my head spin quite as fast. It is still very good, and pairing it with a tart tamarind spread is a terrific idea.
Once you open the wine list and see that it runs to more than 30 pages, you quickly realize that it was put together by somebody with passion for the subject. That somebody is the Noortwyck’s other owner, Mr. Nicaise. There are not as many bottles as there are at Eleven Madison Park, but there are many more than we are used to finding across the street from Caliente Cab Co.’s giant sloshing margarita. What I like best about the list is not its length so much as its attention to different winemaking styles and budgets. (Nice to meet you, $55 soave classico. Come here often?)