I wasn’t planning to use this space for recounting random meals, but as I said, my memory is really bad, and I’m trying to reconstruct what I ate last night at Prune, my all-too-brief former place of employ helmed by Gabrielle Hamilton. Alas, Tamara had swapped out her shift at the last second–but graciously alerted her coworker Cynthia to our arrival.
Eating at Prune is kind of big deal, not just because it’s sorta pricey, but also because it’s like the boyfriend who dumped me before he even got to know me. I had a crush on this restaurant for a year before I got around to calling Gabrielle and asking if I could work there (which is not my usual approach to life, by the way–you can see the extent of my ardor). And it was extremely nice of her to have me in, and let me work weekends for the time she did, and I still massively regret not chucking all my other freelance jobs and giving my life over to Prune, even if it meant living off the pay of three shifts per week. When else am I going to get to manhandle whole pigs every other day, or grill six ribeyes at once while singing along to David Bowie and the Talking Heads? I guess it’s just a matter of quantity (I still manhandle whole pigs occasionally, and I could cook one or two steaks at home while listening to the same music) but still: damn, damn, damn.
Anyway, as I am not an A-list Prune guest (or maybe I should just call more than two days ahead to reserve…duh), we didn’t have a reservation till 9.30. After assembling Catherine and Karine, we started with cocktails at the bar–I got an old-fashioned, well rendered by Rich, who mixes only the sugar and bitters, and doesn’t do the mucky fruit muddling that makes the drink all soupy. Lots of crushed ice. So much better than the deeply unsatisfying one I had at new-to-Astoria faux-bistro 718–that one had extra lemon juice or some crap in it. I wish when bartenders didn’t know what they’re doing, they would just ask the person who ordered the baffling drink, instead of winging it. Genevra in the kitchen sent out deviled eggs, which I think is a classy alternative to the oyster–Catherine and Karine didn’t agree, so I got to eat two!
Dinner was marrow bones and the bread-heel-and-pan-drippings salad for apps, the pulled pork and the fennel-stuffed branzino as mains, and watercress-and-arugula salad, hen-of-the-woods and bluefoot mushrooms, and super-buttery baked cauliflower…with a few capers as a little symbolic nod to grease-cutting. In a NY Times article in 2001, Gabrielle talked about the bread-and-chicken-drippings salad and said she’d never put it on the menu, but it was sooooo good…well, here it is on the menu now, and it was good (though not an attractive-looking dish, really–the chicken bits reminded me of that canned Chunks o’ Chicken they used to issue us for college camping trips). The fish was so yummy and moist, and Catherine did a suave job of deboning. The pork was deadly rich, and those yummy pickled tomatoes on the side were great–very cumin-y. Happily, I didn’t stuff myself _too_ painfully, and have a little box of leftovers for lunch. Dessert was a really simple yogurt panna cotta–tasted like I never left Astoria! Wine was whatever the Cotes-du-Rhone on the menu was…very tasty. Other intriguing items on the menu: side of lentils and chicken livers, a special soup of parsnips and apples and curry spices, braised veal tongue…next time. As with my last visit, I was an idiot and didn’t tip in the grand style I had meant to–somehow I can’t do math above 20 percent. I just do 20 percent, then round up to the nearest increment of 25, but after I’ve sashayed out of the restaurant feeling beneficent, I redo the math and realize I’ve tipped, oh, 24 percent…which really seems lame after all the nice attention and free deviled eggs everyone’s given you.
Before dinner I cruised Dish, where I also worked for a few months last year. It’s the anti-Prune in terms of space (gigantic and poorly utilized), price point (cheap-ish), ingredient quality (cheap-ish), owner attitude (laissez-faire), and general organization (lacking), and the fact that they’re still in business is just weird proof that it takes all kinds. I mean, I haven’t seen so many cans of Sysco products since I worked in the school cafeteria in fourth grade. How hard is it to make your own chicken stock? (For those who don’t cook, in case you’re wondering: Not hard _at all_.) Oh well…I don’t wish Dish ill. The reason I worked there was I thought it was the kind of place I’d like to open. Surely you can do that price point and have better food? I mean, making your own stock is _cheaper_. But really I think what gives them such room for error is their insanely cheap rent deal…which I could never replicate–unless someone wants to give me space for free? And while they’re at it, maybe some great kitchen equipment? And some furniture? And an eternal subscription to the exterminator service and the carting service, and the million other tedious requirements… Just thinking about it makes me tiredâ€”and all the more appreciative of a place like Prune.