I was fortunate enough to go to The Breslin on Friday night for the second of the Fergus Henderson dinners. Henderson, you will remember, is the British chef whose advocacy of “nose to tail” cookery helped start the offal trend on both sides of the Atlantic; his London restaurant, St. John, is considered a shrine by those who revel in the eating of animals. The Breslin, meanwhile, is Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s new restaurant, a space so unexpectedly beautiful that I for one was flabbergasted by it. The Spotted Pig is snug and homey, and the John Dory a funky niche: this is the culmination, in many ways, of the old-timey aesthetic that has gripped the city’s most attuned-in restaurant minds. It struck me that the chef and the room are two parts of an ethical whole. And that’s a fact I like a lot.
The striking thing about Henderson’s cooking is how unadorned and stark it is. It’s really completely at odds with how food is served in New York, where the sense is that sculpture, or really, theater, needs to be built in to the food. After all, a person with a finite sum of discretionary income, going once a month to drop two or three bills on dinner, doesn’t want to just see some meat on a plate. And Henderson doesn’t just present it unadorned; there’s hardly anything in the way of spice or color. Food that direct is making a moral statement, Henderson is held up as a kind of Dalai Lama of meat by his admirers, among whom are most of the top chefs here and in England. And the Breslin, with its “lovingly unrestored” feeling, goes with it. Yes, there is a fresh coat of paint, and some new fixtures. But the Friedman brothers have obviously taken great pains to not interfere with the antique look and feel of the place, and that’s not easy. It’s hard to leave well enough alone. It takes courage to put a pig head on a plate, or to have a ceiling that looks old — not artificially “distressed,” but old. But that courage carries through, and it pays off in lasting food and timeless design. I am speaking of aurochs and angels, sonnets that take a thousand years to die, the secret of durable pigments. And that is the only immortality Fergus, the Breslin, and ourselves may share.