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Restaurant Review: Penny, in the East Village



Restaurant Review: Penny, in the East Village
Restaurant Review: Penny, in the East Village

Chefs tend to load their first restaurants with every hope, dream, vision and idea they’ve ever had. It may not all come together, but if it comes close and if the ideas are any good, we can respond to the originality and overlook the weak spots.

That was my reaction to Claud, which the chef Joshua Pinsky opened with Chase Sinzer two years ago in the East Village. I was so happy with the food coming out of the kitchen that I didn’t mind the disjointed layout, which sometimes left me wondering if I was sitting in the wrong place. I didn’t care, either, that it was hard to see a thread that tied together the homespun devil’s food layer cake and the tomato mille-feuille built from sheafs of puff pastry that any patisserie in Lyon would be proud to claim. Still, my review attempting to answer the question “What is Claud?” took up more than 1,000 words, and I’m not sure it ever got where it was going.

Mr. Pinsky and Mr. Sinzer opened a second restaurant in March, directly above the first, up a short flight of iron stairs from the East 10th Street sidewalk. They named it Penny, and I can describe it in two words. It’s a seafood counter. With a few more words, I’ll tell you that the counter is comfortable and roomy, that seafood of one kind or another turns up in almost every item on the menu except the two desserts, and that it is handled with unusual sensitivity and clarity.

Penny is a very good restaurant for many reasons, not the least of which is that it skates around so many of the little traps Claud fell into. I’m not trying to run down Claud, which is the more complex of the two and may be the more interesting. But Penny improves upon it in several ways, and that’s notable because restaurants that avoid the sophomore slump and manage not to come off as branding exercises are rare and getting rarer.

Ian Chapin, the interior designer who broke Claud up into small, distinct dining areas, takes the opposite tack with Penny. One nearly continuous counter, made of fog-white marble with fat, smoke-colored veins, runs down the entire space, which is long and narrow, like a bocce court. Facing the counter are 31 stools, all the same and all very comfortable, with cushy leather seats and backs and metal footrests.

By the front door are four spots at a shallow marble ledge built into the glass aquarium wall that looks out over the street. The ledge is big enough to hold a glass of wine and maybe half a dozen raw cherrystones or oysters, but if you want much more than that you should angle for a counter seat.

While you can treat Penny as a raw bar, it is not the place to go when you want to study the salinity and creaminess of oysters from every cove and inlet along the East Coast. On any given night, they all come from one location.

But there is a host of other chilled shellfish. Razor clams are decorated with tiny pickles of cauliflower and other vegetables; tuna carpaccio is sent out with crushed green olives and semicircles of cipollini onions, sharp and raw.

Penny’s shrimp cocktail is worth a visit all by itself. Shrimp cocktail never really went out of style, but it has become something of a touchstone lately, a reassuring totem of the midcentury American gift for investing extremely plain food with glamour. Because it’s so simple, restaurants tend to make it carelessly or, at the other end of the spectrum, over-elaborately. The version at Penny is completely traditional, but it gets right all the details that most other places get wrong.

It can be eaten on its own or as part of a sampler called the Ice Box, a metal tray of chipped iced that might also hold shucked clams and oysters, pickled mussels and sliced raw scallops under a terrific citrus-seaweed-chile dressing.

Mr. Sinzer has said that he and Mr. Pinsky took some inspiration from Le Dauphin and L’Écailler du Bistrot in Paris, two seafood-focused offshoots opened just down the block from their chefs’ original restaurants, Le Chateaubriand and Le Bistrot Paul Bert. What Penny reminds me of are the seafood counters of Barcelona, such as Lluritu and Cal Pep.

It’s not that the recipes are particularly Catalan or Spanish, although it’s easy to imagine a stall in the Boqueria serving Penny’s sliced octopus, pink with sweet pimentón and arranged over a potato salad bound by fried onions and mayonnaise. (How crisp cubes of smoked, pickled daikon got into the salad I’m not quite sure, but they’re a nice surprise.) And the wonderful grilled squid, stuffed with tuna and chard, is sauced with a spice oil that tastes a little like harissa and recalls the Moorish flavors in Spanish cooking.

But a Catalan chef might find something familiar about the way Mr. Pinsky treats seafood — he doesn’t overcook it, seasons it with respect for its inherent flavors and serves it with confidence that its quality will be obvious to anyone who likes fish.

Apart from Cantabrian anchovies, Penny doesn’t stock the tinned Spanish fish that you see now at so many counters around the city. (The anchovies can be served over a mound of salted butter to be eaten with a warm, sesame-sprinkled loaf of brioche.) Most of Penny’s seafood comes from the salt waters of the Northeast. The squid, the cod, the black sea bass that is served raw beside a lump of just-grated wasabi — all of it has that special freshness that you only get when everybody in the supply chain does their part, from the boat to the dock to the delivery truck. A lot of the shellfish are kept on beds of ice along the back of the bar, including lobsters, one of which will from time to time stir to life without warning before it’s hustled offstage.

When it returns, it has been lightly poached and cracked open, the meat cut into bits that you stab with your fork and swish around in the brown butter pooled in the bottom of the bowl. I don’t know another restaurant in the city that has come closer to respecting the spirit of the steamed lobster with drawn butter that you can find on the shore from Maine to Connecticut, while cleaning it up and fine-tuning it and even improving it a bit.

The puff pastry dough from Claud’s mille-feuille, or something like it, reappears as a golden beehive that is set above the elegant oyster pan roast, ready to shatter on contact with a knife. Made without cream or chile sauce, this pan roast looks and tastes nothing like the majestic one at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Made with peas and bacon, it has more in common with a potpie; it’s uncategorizable and delicious.

The sesame brioche is the only bread Penny serves; it’s so airy that it may not be the right bread. Penny doesn’t have any of the pastas or rice dishes that provide ballast at other seafood restaurants, and it’s possible to spend $100 or more on dinner and walk out feeling not quite full.

And yet that brioche does double duty as the bread for an ice cream sandwich filled with a fat lump of vanilla ice cream and a few spoonfuls of barely cooked strawberry compote. It may be a tribute to the strawberry shortcake I’m always hoping for when I go to one of those beachside lobster shacks. Once in a while, I get lucky. That’s how the ice cream sandwich at Penny made me feel — lucky.

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