A changing of the guard at Musket Room, in NoLIta, brings border-hopping dishes that are worth putting on pants for.
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The news that Matt Lambert, the chef who made Musket Room a lonely outpost of New Zealand cuisine in NoLIta, had been replaced by Mary Attea in February 2020 did not exactly echo throughout the land. At least, I didn’t hear about it. Then the engine fell out of the restaurant economy a few weeks later, and details like changes of kitchen leadership seemed even less urgent.
Several months ago, I finally got word of Ms. Attea’s new post, and sidled into Musket Room. It was the closest I’ve ever come to learning that a very good restaurant had been operating at peak levels right under my nose in the heart of Manhattan, without my knowing anything about it. As knowing about restaurants like that is more or less my job, I’d like to blame it all on Covid and move on.
The first thing that struck me is that Ms. Attea (pronounced uh-TEA-uh), having dabbled in takeout during the pandemic, has returned to a luxuriantly elaborate style of conceiving a dish, one that she doesn’t seem to have toned down to suit the new informality. She is not making food for people who gave up on pants and have dinner out of paper boxes while sinking into the couch to watch “Pam & Tommy” on Hulu.
When you have her hamachi crudo, you do not want to be disentangling shreds of fresh mint from sparkling lobes of grapefruit that have become smeared with dots of pistachio purée that got mixed up with the pool of glossy orange vinaigrette that used to be ringed in by slices of hamachi that are barely charred along one side. You want to be sitting upright, in a chair, holding a fork. You want to have the whole beautiful arrangement, neat as a goldfinch nest, set down in front of you by one of the Musket Room’s servers, who will point out the dish’s highlights. They do this as unpretentiously as anyone can while talking about seared hamachi and citrus vinaigrette.
Musket Room has a regular à la carte menu and two tasting menus, one vegan and one not, each for $98. Yet the place is much looser and jollier than some of the tasting-menu chambers that have marched into town lately, like Saga, 63 Clinton and One White Street. (It must be Eleven Madison Park’s influence that has made a stiff-spined cheerfulness the default mode for tasting-menu service in New York.)
A lot of Musket Room’s energy radiates from the bar, a long, polished slab of live-edge wood that has become a neighborhood hangout. No doubt it helps that the owner, Jennifer Vitagliano, hasn’t adopted the annoying policy of reserving bar seating for diners, a sure way to snuff out the spontaneous connections that are the engine of a good restaurant bar. You’re free to drink some esoteric cocktails (sherry, vermouth and Cardamaro garnished with a pickled gooseberry still on the branch) or even more esoteric wines (Piedmontese timorasso and a German red called Rotgut are poured by the glass) without ordering a crumb to eat. There’s another room in the back that carries on the atmosphere established in the front, something of a tavern that was trying to dress up a bit and stopped halfway through.
I first heard the name Mary Attea when I was reviewing Anita Lo’s restaurant, Annisa, which is now closed. When we spoke on the phone to confirm a few details, Ms. Lo made sure I knew that one recipe came from her sous-chef, Ms. Attea, who got it from her father. It was called beef tartare and was essentially a Levantine kibbe nayeh, chopped by hand, stirred with bulgur and white onions, and seasoned so simply and confidently with cinnamon that I can taste it now.
Ms. Attea’s father got the recipe from Lebanon, where his parents were born. With a few cheffy flourishes, like tofu-sesame sauce, it was right at home on Annisa’s menu, which blithely roamed the world for inspiration. At Musket Room, Ms. Attea takes a similar border-hopping approach when it suits her.
No region seems to serve as her home base the way East Asia did for Ms. Lo. There is an echo of Spain in the saffron-scented aioli spooned around a salad of smoked mussels, jamón Ibérico and potatoes cooked in olive oil. Eastern Europe seems to inspire the sweet and smoky wedge of grilled caraflex cabbage, dusted with powdered caraway seeds and served in a sourdough consommé — a bread broth that may bring to mind kvass.
The Middle East comes and goes. That’s za’atar dusted over the labneh arranged around two meaty slices of duck breast; another spice blend, baharat, seasons the red piece of grilled Duroc pork beside puréed and pickled squashes.
Either the flavors or techniques of France, or both, often lurk in the background. One current tasting menu features a voluptuously smooth sunchoke velouté, aromatic with fresh thyme, under a musky patch of grated black truffle; it wouldn’t be out of place at Gabriel Kreuther Restaurant.
Ms. Attea knows what to do with butter — pounding it with anchovies to serve with an excellent, softball-size loaf of warm sourdough, or browning it to spoon over crisply sautéed sweetbreads with toasted hazelnuts and small, juicy muscat grapes.
The desserts, from the pastry chef, Camari Mick, do not yield an inch in their complexity and elegance to the rest of the cooking. I am fascinated by the reworked Mont Blanc, shaped more like a croissant than a dome and filled with a snowy white-chocolate mousse; the sweet chestnut crémeux is set against cubes of sage cake and a scoop of sage ice cream.
One corner of the globe that Ms. Attea doesn’t seem to be exploring is New Zealand. It is the home of Mr. Lambert, Musket Room’s founding chef; the inspiration for much of his menu; and the place where he resettled during the pandemic. She is probably wise to leave it alone. There would be little glory in cooking the second-best New Zealand food in the history of Elizabeth Street.
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