There’s a concept in retailing called the hero SKU. It’s basically the one item in the store that carries the entire business. At Tory Burch this would be her famous ballet flat, or at Ralph Lauren it would be the men’s polo shirt. And for food, it would be the pancakes at Clinton Street Bakery and the cupcakes at Magnolia (even though the banana pudding is wayyy better).
And at Pasquale Jones, the new Italian restaurant in Nolita run by the Charlie Bird team, the little neck clam pizza is the hero. Clam chowder is one of my favorite foods in the world. It was the soup of the day on Friday at Denny’s, and you can only guess what I had for dinner every Friday night in the suburbs. This pie basically tastes like Friday night at Denny’s, and I mean that in the most flattering way. If you can imagine creamy clam chowder soup on top of a doughy, chewy crust, that is what this clam pizza tastes like. Since the Charlie Bird team is behind this, you know that they can recommend some excellent wines to pair with that pizza. I am blanking on the bottle we ordered, but it was somewhat dry, a little funky, and brought out the brine in the clams.
Sometimes a restaurant might rest on the laurels of the hero SKU and neglect the other parts of the menu. Pasquale Jones is not like that. I didn’t think I would love eating leeks as an appetizer, as the faint resemblance to onions is not really my thing, but here they braise away any of that raw flavor so that you almost feel like you’re eating creamy meaty asparagus with scallions. I love how the menu is small so that you don’t get too overwhelmed by choices. You can order a few appetizers, a pizza and an entree and feel like you’ve grasped the main intent of the menu.
There’s only one dessert option, a mascarpone gelato with rhubarb and olive oil. You might think it’s a lazy way to check the box at the end of a meal, but it’s one of the best parts. They rotate the fruit topping based on the season, but whatever it is, the tastiness is perennial. And the icing on the cake? Gratuity is included but the prices aren’t outrageous. One of the few times where saying “check please” is a pleasant one.
187 Mulberry St (between Broome & Kenmare St)
New York, NY 10012
Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived. Charlie Bird, a new Italian restaurant in Soho, is named in honor of him and the great city that nurtured his talent. When you associate yourself with one of the greatest cities and musicians on this earth, you are holding yourself to a very high standard. And unfortunately, Charlie Bird can’t rise to the level of its heroes. The rhythm of dinner service was far from perfect. On the whole, it was very uneven–a lot of flat notes and service issues that were offensively off-pitch, which overshadowed a few moments of brilliance.
Service is a glaring weakness at Charlie Bird. One of my biggest pet peeves is when waiters try to clear a plate of food that you are still clearly working on, which happened several times during dinner. I understand how this might happen if a place is really busy and the waiters are trying to quickly turnaround tables to make room for the next guest, but 8:15 on a Sunday night isn’t really peak dining time, as indicated by the empty tables around us. And besides, it’s never ever ok, busy or not, to ask, “can I take your plate?” when there’s visible evidence of food on there. I’m paying a lot of money for this meal–isn’t it only fair that I get to eat all of it? I’ve never experienced such urgency to clear the table even at the brusquest of busy Chinese restaurants.
There was an incident with one of the servers that really bothered me. When he brought out a plate of the house focaccia, he proceeded to set it on the table without any explanation. That’s fine and all, so I asked politely what it was. When he said, “focaccia,” I then followed up with, “what’s in it?” (rosemary? cheese? fresh tomatoes? things like that would be nice to know.) I thought it was pretty standard at high-end restaurants to describe a dish to diners upon arrival, and I think most customers want to be informed of what they’re about to eat. That’s why I didn’t think it was such a big deal to ask this question. The server replied with a rude, “why don’t you find out for yourself?” Needless to say, I was pretty pissed.
In a recent interview with Fork in the Road, the restaurant’s executive chef Ryan Hardy announced that he was bringing service back to NYC restaurants, but clearly he didn’t mean his own. I’m pretty sure the definition of good service doesn’t include being rude to customers and aggressively clearing plates. And back to that server–what if I had some allergy and actually needed to know what was in the focaccia? His response would have been totally irresponsible. I can’t let this one go.
I tried to put the incident behind me and focus on enjoying the food. The focaccia itself was very good–it was soft and chewy, and the tomato sauce provided a nice, salty touch. The grilled peach and prosciutto appetizer followed soon after. Prosciutto and fruit has always been a classic pairing that I’ve never completely understood or warmed to. I would much rather eat the components separately than together. Individually the peach was sweet and ripe and the prosciutto was delicate and rich, but eating them together didn’t result in some transcendent union.
It’s clear at this point that Charlie Bird was working off of a big handicap–horrible service, decent focaccia, and a grilled peach appetizer that fell a bit flat. The skate wing and roasted chicken entrees impressively covered a lot of the deficit. The roasted chicken was one of the best chicken dishes that I’ve had in awhile. The skin was perfectly cooked to a golden crisp, and the underlying meat was tender and moist. It was served with a unique and distinctive sauce that tasted similar to foie gras, which lent the chicken a sharp, tangy flavor.
The skate wing was also well-executed, but it was overshadowed by the superior and more innovative flavor profile of the chicken. Eating skate wing is a very interesting experience. You’re literally peeling off thin strands of fish meat from a fin as opposed to eating a cohesive single filet. The meat was perfectly pan-fried, and the mayo-based sauces that accompanied it were rich, savory and delicious. The capers provided some nice sharp notes to the otherwise mild flavors.
Charlie Bird somewhat redeemed itself with the dinner entrees, so I decided it was safe to stay for dessert. We ordered the chocolate cake with olive oil gelato and rice krispie bits. The dessert capitalized upon that winning combination of savory-sweet, smooth-crunchy. It was good in a technical way–the cake was rich and moist, the rice krispie bits lent some great texture, and the olive oil gelato was smooth and rich. But the flavors were more commercially appealing as opposed to being distinctive, making it just another good chocolate cake.
Even though Charlie Bird made a strong showing towards the end, I’m not ever coming back. My dinner at the restaurant made me realize how much service matters in shaping your dining experience. I’m hoping that the chef and his staff take their own “bringing back service” mantra to heart as opposed to just preaching it to the press. Right now, they’re not even close to living up to the legacy of the great musician that bears its name. A lot more practice needs to be put in before they toot their own horn as being one of the best.
— Charlie Bird 5 King St. (at W. Houston) New York, NY 10012 (212) 235-7133