Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Acme - The Once and Future

What happens when a restaurant opens in New York City, and it’s serving a cuisine about which I know practically nothing? Actually, I confess – I do know a little bit about the cuisine.  After all, these cookbooks are part my collection…

There’s the Time-Life book, The Cooking of Scandanavia, one of the books from the classic series of Time-Life Foods of the World books. Alongside is a book by those well know authors, Asta Bang and Edith Rode, called Open Sandwiches and Cold Lunches – An Introduction to Danish Culinary Art.  Yes, I also have the newer book by the famous guy, but like I said, I still know next to nothing.

Enter Acme, or Acme Bar and Grill, on Great Jones Street. Acme was, for many years, a club slash bar that served up some “Southern food” as well as some mighty fine rock and roll shows down in the basement.  The r & r was the extent of my familiarity with the joint, since I’d never eaten there, but shows by the likes of Alex Chilton and Roy Loney are probably why my hearing is not as good as it used to be. 

Back to the new Acme.  The executive chef is Mads Refslund, a Dane who was one of the founding partner/chefs (along with René Redzepi) of what many consider to be one of the world’s top restaurants: Noma, located in Copenhagen. (That’s the other book I have, by the way). Be that as it may, now he’s ours, at least for the time being. And that, from my experience so far, is a good thing.

Two meals over a couple of days allowed me to try a nice chunk of the menu (as well as a few of the cocktails), which is divided, as so many menus are these days, into an ever-expanding number of categories. They are:

Raw;  Cooked;  Soil;  Sides;  Sea/Land;  Desserts.

Mads, from everything I’ve read, is a promoter of the New Nordic Cuisine, and if I told you I was unfamiliar with that, it’s because I’ve yet to travel to the places where New Nordic Cuisine is being cooked and being served.  And, according to Mads, he’s not really cooking New Nordic Cuisine at Acme; what he’s cooking is in the style of and based on the philosophy of New Nordic Cuisine, which in this case means using as many local and seasonal ingredients as is possible, without mucking them up too much.

So for instance, a raw starter of “Sweet shrimp and bison” might not have been foraged in Central Park, but the interplay of sweet/bitter and soft/crunchy just knocked us out. It looked handsome too…

"House-cured salmon" was another winner from the raw section of the menu, and three of us fought over the last bites, even going so far as to mop up, with some excellent Sullivan Street Bakery bread, the last trace of buttermilk horseradish dressing. “Duck in a jar” was not quite confit and not quite rillettes. Hunks of tender duck were tucked under a pile of pickled vegetables, tender enough to be spread on the accompanying toast…

While the “Country toast” was merely good, “Pearl barley and clams” was a big hit.  Maybe my favorite dish of everything I’ve tried so far, the earthy barley and briny clams were drenched in a roasted sunflower broth with hunks of artichoke heart and baby scallops along for the ride.  The worst part – I had to share. Barley – who’d have thunk it, though it did kind of sneakily remind me of a Sardinian specialty, fregola with clams.

I didn’t, though, have to share my “Pork chop,” just cooked enough for my liking (though if you don’t like pork rare, ask for it medium or more).  Pork chops are on every menu in town, but most of them aren’t as good as this, accompanied as it was by parsnips, pears, cranberries and maybe even a pomegranate aril or two…

My buddy’s “Arctic char” was another simple dish – just cooked and seasoned perfectly, all crisp skin and rare flesh punched up with capers and sherry vinegar, two of my favorite puckery things…

I can’t not mention the “Hay roasted sunchokes,” earthy from both gruyere and black winter truffles, and the “Black cod,” a fish I happen to love because in another guise, it’s called smoked sable, and is one of my favorite things to put on a bagel.  Here once again, the fish was perfectly cooked, just past the point of rare, which with a fish like cod makes all the difference in the world. Not cooked enough – it sucks. Cooked too much – it sucks.  

The one dessert we had was a knockout.  Called simply “Chocolate crisps,” brittle tuile-like dark chocolate is served on a bed of intense ganache alongside coffee ice cream. This touched all my buttons, because I love chocolate and I love coffee. It was great.

You know, dining out can sometimes be a learning experience, and two meals at Acme have taught me quite a bit. Certainly a little bit about the philosophy of the New Nordic Cuisine, and how the use of bitter and sour components is as important as the use of sweet and salty. They open the palate. Raw, crunchy things on a plate are good and can serve to heighten the flavor and texture of the other components. Excellent ingredients are important, but hey, that’s a given…I mean, we even try that here.  But respecting the ingredients and treating them properly should be a given too, though often that’s not the case; here at Acme, it mostly is.

I can't keep up with all latest news from the Acme front. The other day, the downstairs, that great old room that saw a lot of loud music, was rumored to be becoming a bit of a dance club with a DJ. Open till 4 AM. Today, management swears no way. Just a nice cocktail lounge, a bar with drinks, where you can have a party if you want to.

What that means for the upstairs, for a restaurant that a mere one week into its existence is turning out some fine food, is altogether another. Go soon – who knows how long Mads will be at the stove?

Acme, 9 Great Jones Street, New York City


  1. Mitch. Dude. The old Acme was a staple when I was working at Broadway and Houston in the mid-1980s, all sorts of crazy southern stuff like chicken fried steak that you couldn't get anywhere else in NYC. Plus they had more hot sauces than Carter had liver pills. Acme, NoHo Star, and (of course) Katz's were the only three places I ate back in the day....

  2. This review touched all my buttons. Then it massaged them, fingers slowly caressing the area around my buttons, until, oh shit. My buttons popped! Probably the best thing you've ever written. You are without a doubt the younger, male version of Gael Greene! I'm surprised, however, that you neglected to mention the gorgeous crowd, which definitely added to the feeling that, barring some kind of flameout, this could be the hottest restaurant of 2012.

  3. @Danny - it's definitely the hottest restaurant of 2012 - so far.

    I barely noticed the crowd; how could I when the people I was with were so gorgeous themselves?

    @Chris - some day a real rain will come...

  4. acompliment from danny. u have arrived