When people tell me they're going to New York City I ask where they will dine. Then I make suggestions. Sometimes I'm even crazy enough to ask someone living there which restaurant is their favorite. People who love to eat get a pained expression on their face when they attempt to take in my queries. They tell me it's impossible to choose just one. While I can see their point, I disagree.
My favorite restaurant in New York City is Prune. It's on first street between first and second avenue, and it's so small that a lazy blink will guarantee completely missing it. Prune is Paris small, and if you need a lot of personal space, it’s not the place for you.
Gabrielle Hamilton is Prune's chef-owner. The first time I met her it struck me that she was unafraid of voicing strong opinions, but didn't take herself too seriously. Her food is soulful, clean, clear, straightforward, homey, and humorous. While many chefs speak a rhetoric the media adores, Ms. Hamilton's restaurant walks a talk unspoken, but felt down to your very toes, should you have all your senses open when you dine there.
Prune's tiny space presses disparate people against one another and the conviviality is sweaty and infectious. That close, familial feeling starts with the staff first, and many people who work at Prune were only going to stay there for a few weeks but are there year after year, still, when I make my pilgrimages.
Luckily for us, two Prune chef alums, Ginevra Iverson and Eric Korsh have recently migrated West to Sebastopol and opened Eloise, in fact. After getting ahold of the news on EaterSF some time ago, I knew I would make the drive, and who I would take. My friend DB said, after looking at the menu for the first time, "Yeah, but the problem is we're going to need to order everything on there. I will not be able to choose."
Luckily, DB and I are both famous eaters, and we didn't have to do much choosing last night, because we ordered all the appetizers except one and for that we substituted a Hudson Valley free-range foie gras torchon with Eloise garden grown peaches and pears.
What we ate, in order from extra ordinary to just great:
Chilled Tomato Soup, Heirloom Tomatoes, Mint & Chives; Mushroom Toast, Poached Egg, Black Truffle, Bordelaise; Roasted Bone Marrow, Parsley & Shallot Salad; The Foie Gras Special; Bibb Lettuce, Warm Feta, Scallion, Red Wine Vinaigrette; Puntarelle, Chopped Egg Vinaigrette, Candied Bacon; Octopus and White Anchovy Salad, String Beans, Fingerling Potatoes; Crispy Sweetbreads, Pickled Vegetables, Raisin-Mustard Vinaigrette.
Next time we’ll focus on entrees.
If we could have ordered one it would have been Ricotta and Chard Gnocchi, Brown Butter, Sage. But after eight dishes, in three courses, we were happy to get the dessert menus and call it a night well spent.
Eloise is aesthetically stunning. Seeing its understated sign on Gravenstein Highway South won't prepare you for a restaurant both elegant and comfy, country and city, understated and decorated, whimsical and clean, open and intimate. Upon entering you're greeted with small bar and a fabulous floor of Moroccan tiles. A number of vegetable gardens, currently in seasonal transition, flank the kitchen; and a wall blocking the old highway from the dining room's view is terraced with herbs and wildflowers.
If you can get to Eloise before night, it's one of the best restaurants to watch day turn to dusk and then thick inky blue sky. Sebastopol remains a mostly agricultural town and the air, especially as we Northern Californians gently enter autumn, is redolent of apples, grapes turning into wine, and cow pastures; sometimes all at once. Night skies are dense with stars when clear.
Eloise’s dessert menu is tiny compared to it's salty side. Three items were offered and Ginevra's special of rhubarb crepes and vanilla ice cream was offered verbally by our gracious waiter. Off the menu we ordered Sugared Doughnuts with Raspberry Jam, and the special. While I can appreciate offering simple, straightforward plates in the last course category, I found desserts lacking. I'm a tough customer, though, and I was glad not to see San Francisco's ubiquitous lowest-common-denominator pannacottas and molten chocolate cakes.
Cooking in and for New York City is a very different experience than that of Northern California. Chefs Iverson & Korsh have given birth to a bi-coastal restaurant, both in technique and inspiration, and my hope is their success makes way for other chefs inspired by farm-kitchens to journey West or East, depending, expanding our ideas about what ingredient-driven cuisine can be.
Eloise, at its nascent six weeks old, is doing a great job. And my belief is that it will only get better. As leaves turn, and fall arrives, Sebastopol explodes with the fruit it’s famous for: apples. And perhaps these chefs, inspired by Gabrielle Hamilton’s unique humor, carry with them a mischievous secret: they’ve moved from the Big Apple to seduce California’s apple county.