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Prune

Restaurant, at 54 East 1st Street in Manhattan.

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton was not on duty on the Wednesday night when we paid our first visit to her restaurant, so I was unable to thank her personally for having started up a restaurant just for me. How she can have had me in mind is a question that only the Zeitgeist can answer. Since I can't go every night - once a month would signal great devotion - I'm willing to share the place,  as long as I can always book a table a week ahead of time. I've been to several small-to-tiny restaurants in the East Village since my daughter, who lives down there, expressed a desire for more interesting dinner venues than Planet Yorkville has to offer, but Prune is in a class by itself.

Two weeks ago,  leafing through the Times' Dining In/Dining Out section, I was about to clip Ms Hamilton's recipe for roast pork when I had a better idea. Why not visit the source? I'd clipped everything that Hamilton had contributed during her stint as guest chef - even though I doubted that I'd ever make something like Breton butter cake - because her offerings were fragrant with the spirit of what Kathleen and I call bonne femme cuisine. From an American standpoint, it's how Mother ought to have cooked. It's how I'd like to cook. It's already how I like to eat. 

So I called the restaurant to make a reservation, and, what do you know, I got one! Trying to get into a small restaurant whose chef had set up a window box in the Times was challenging enough even without knowing that the editors of Saveur Magazine included Prune in their 'Saveur 100' roundup a few months ago. I only found that  later, when I had a minute to catch up on cooklooks. In its Jan.-Feb. 2001 issue, Saveur pronounced Prune 'Our Favorite Teeny Restaurant in Manhattan.' I'd have had to take a Xanax before trying to book a table after reading that.

The Saveur writeup quotes Hamilton's credo. "I know what I want to eat: real home cooking, food that goes from stove to table, not touched by 50 people in the process." That's what attracted me to her recipes in the Times. Most guest chefs have filled the slot with dream-on dishes that only the most competitive layman would enjoy reproducing at home. Hamilton's, for a change, looked only slightly more complicated than the recipes in my weekday repertoire. They also seemed to concentrate the pleasures of familiar food, instead of smothering them with distractions. It  seemed likely that her restaurant would suit my been-there, on-my-way-back philosophy.

Did it ever. I arrived, as usual, before either of the ladies, and lost no time ordering the treats that had appeared in the Times the day before (a week after the roast pork): a Junipero Gibson and a 'snack' consisting of buttered brown bread, salted onion, and Spanish goat's milk cheese. It was nice to ask for a Martini without specifying 'gin,' even if the Martini was really a Gibson - not, ordinarily, my cup of tea. The onion, salted and splashed with vinegar, sits out for a few minutes before going into the drink; this gives the lachrymator time to wear off. (See Harold McGee, 'On Food and Cooking,' [Scribner's, 1984], p. 156.). Hamilton applies the same trick to the hors d'oeuvre. Even after reading that recipe five times, I still couldn't figure out quite how it would be eaten - an awkwardness that introduction to the dish itself didn't quite clear up. I took to spreading a bit of Garrotxa on the bread (I never did get anyone to pronounce the name of the cheese for me) and then sprinkling a few bits of onions with my fingers. I could have eaten the whole plateload, and just about did, for even though I pushed the dish aside to wait for the ladies, they didn't share my enthusiasm. But then nobody shares my enthusiasm for cheese. Meanwhile, I ordered another item from the Bar Menu: sardines and Triscuits.

Now it was time to order dinner. The main menu idiosyncratically sandwiches the higher-priced full entrees between the appetizers; we couldn't figure out what if any taxonomy governed this arrangement. It made choosing things a bit more interesting than the conventional price-ranked approach. As if I hadn't eaten anything yet, I ordered two of the richest dishes. First, an appetizer of chicken livers and lentils, and then a plate of sweetbreads. Both the livers and the sweetbreads turned out to be deep- or pan-fried, and because there were enough lentils alongside the livers to make the appetizer a full meal, I was really grateful when the sweetbreads arrived with no more accompaniment than a slip of decorative greenery. Getting them down after all the preceding snacks was a labor of love. With rash bravado, I made room for a dessert that I'd never had, a pistachio pithivier. I'd never had a pithivier and I had no idea what a pithivier is.  Consuming the trifle failed to enlighten: my critical apparatus had caved during the sweetbreads. The pithivier was delicious, though - that I could tell. Everything was delicious.

Each of the dishes that I ordered at Prune presented my palate with savor and interest in perfect balance. The bright freshness with which the mostly-familiar components were handled lifted them beyond the reach of comfort food but not to thin air of self-conscious insistence. The chicken livers' crisp coats gave them the warm succulence of fried chicken without clogging their straightforward bitterness, and the lentils' discreet vinaigrette highlighted the beans' round flavor instead of lashing out with a sour sting. Sweetbreads (calf's thymus) have been a favorite of mine since my teens, but I've never had them fried. I can easily imagine how the dish could turn out to be a disaster; I've had sweetbreads that were flavorless (inappropriately gamy ones, too), and we've all had greasy, dry, poorly-fried food. But Chef Hamilton obviously takes frying very seriously. The meat was perfect - firm but light, lemony and buttery - and its juices ran sweetly inside the sleek coating. It will be hard to order something else when I make my next visit. 

I forgot the Italian Wedding Soup. There had been an accident at Prune earlier in the day: the main door of its cast iron and glass façade had blown out or fallen in or something - it was no longer there - and our table was right in the draft. To thank us for not complaining, the maîtresse d' served us cups of hot Italian Wedding Soup somewhere in between our hors d'oeuvres and dinner proper. All I remember is a luscious broth with bits of bitter green; I can't find a recipe to spur my memory. Something else that I can't quite recall is the flavor of the ice cream that accompanied the pithivier. I think it was lemon. It doesn't really matter. I should certainly have remembered it if I hadn't had too many goodies beforehand.

Since I sat with my back to the restaurant and the open kitchen, I had no opportunity to study the ambiance at Prune, but it seemed a lot like other downtown restaurants, only perceptibly brighter and cleaner. I'm pretty sure I was the oldest person there, and that Kathleen was the next-oldest; everyone else was Megan's age. If I had the feeling, as I always do in the East Village, of taking Megan to dinner just off campus, it was reasonable to the extent that I would probably never explore the neighborhood if she didn't live in it. I would probably have made it to Prune, though. The promise of food just as I would like to cook it but cooked by other hands than mine was irresistible, and the fulfillment of that promise means I'll be going back soon. (May 2001)

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