If you live in New York and you still have a pulse, the terms: Nomad and Eleven Madison Park will indubitably mean something to you, but I doubt very much if you could conjure up much recognition for the name, James Kent. Pity. What you don’t know is that Mr. Kent was the executive chef at The Nomad and chef de cuisine at 11MP before going it alone at Crown Shy. But if you think his first solo venture on the darker side of Wall street is anything like his prior kitchens – think again.
I’m hesitant to add any additional commentary to that head-scratcher of a name, but suffice it to say that Crown Shy is not a reference to a reluctant member of the royal family, nor is there anything remotely bashful about this newcomer to the Manhattan food scene. Located on a narrow FiDi side-street anchoring an impressively well-preserved art deco temple, you pass through a lobby clad with an entire quarry of ornamental marble framed with brass trimmings and lanterns before stepping into a subdued, contemporary (hip-as-hell) loft with concrete floors, 16-foot ceilings and windows that stretch out between them. Despite the oodles of bold design choices, nothing seems to fight for dominance here. The granite bar is really cool, but so is the open kitchen, but so is the brushed leather seating and so are the exposed steel columns. A quick scan of the menu might also seem like the 16 or so dishes are about to stage a knock-down, drag-out fight for attention, but they end up proving to be a harmonious and complementary ensemble of colorfully cosmopolitan characters from every corner of the globe. Only the UN represents more nationalities on a single page.
The evening’s sole impediment was our more curt than courteous server (probably a symptom of catering to the buy-low sell-high trading-floor crowd, versus the plenty-of-time-to-kill Sunday-night-laid-backers). While she might have thought of a dozen other places she’d rather have been, we on the other hand were thrilled to have landed a much-coveted booth and hoped to prolong the experience indefinitely. But her chagrin was quickly overshadowed by colorful dish after colorful dish that descended from the darkness above. The first being the much-blogged about bread “loaf-let”. As shiny and brown as a new Ferragamo oxford, this adorably box-shaped challah is not only topped with dried olives, but someone had conveniently sandwiched olive tapenade in between each doll-sized slice.
While sharing “family style” becomes ever more de rigueur, what restaurateurs don’t realize, is that it initiates a dreary game of “Who has the most manners?” where everyone stares at the food and waits for someone else to go first. Crown Shy smartly delivers their dishes in batches of three or four at a time, encouraging diners to start digging into whatever is closest to them while everything is still hot. Speaking of sizzling, I doubt if a single table has ever been turned without at least one helping of Gruyere Fritters. These finger-length churros, oozing with melted cheese and a dusting of lime and chili are a little bit French, somewhat Mexican, entirely delicious and unavoidably Instagram-able.
Another crowd pleaser is the smooth, pale, creamy and passport-bursting take on a middle-eastern White Bean Hummus, spiked with spicy, red blobs of Spanish ‘Nduja sausage to be scooped up and enjoyed with a trio of tear-apart Indian Puri bread balls.
Of the two salads we tried, the stack of Romaine leaves luxuriously slathered with tangy green-goddess dressing and toasted breadcrumbs felt more flavor and texture perfect than the pleasant but unremarkable Tomato and Peach salad with dots of feta on a puddle of basil puree. I did wonder if pairing a row of tangy Charred Carrots with razor clams might be a little on the brave side, or that the one would overshadow the other, but the lemon-thyme flavored bubble bath they all sat in provided a perfectly neutral playground for both to yield a sapid layer of salty umami. Similarly, adding sweetcorn to accompany the candy-shaped, goat-cheese stuffed Caramelle, kicked an otherwise neutral chanterelle-butter sauced pasta into an entirely different universe of satiny delight. And despite this city’s obsession for the best roast chicken, chef Kent has dared to move the goal posts yet again. His version of a tarty, zesty, grilled citrus-marinated half-bird, (almost as brown as the one paraded around at The NoMad) proves to be several notches more moist and tender than any other in the tri-state area. Most of it arrives obscured under a leafy green and pink radish camouflage, with just the claw creeping close to an auburn dollop of home-made, spicy, sweet, sour, tangy hot sauce, which I would happily apply to anything and everything I might ever eat again. Even ice-cream. Much like chef Kent, dessert maestro and fellow Eleven Madison Park alum Renata Ameni reaches for flavors and textures with little concern for their origin or expected preparations. Her tart and tangy Satsuma Orange Ice-cream is topped with a shaving-foam puff of toasted meringue, which adds warmth, softness and height, while a side of crispy, crunchy, toasted honeycomb delivers an extra layer of sweetness. She also uses yoghurt in her Cheesecake, which is shingled with a ring of cherry farthings, a pistachio crumble topping and a hidden surprise of sorbet somewhere beneath.
And just like that, with the clang of the closing bell, Manhattan just gave birth to its newest foodie neighborhood.