As anyone who’s worked at a small restaurant can tell you, living in the moment is par for the course. Indeed, it’s often the case that things never quite come together until the last minute. Whether it’s a pre-service dash to the deli to pick up soap or a moment of utter terror in which you realize you’ve forgotten to order extra fish for the Saturday night special, life in a tiny kitchen rarely provides time for introspection. This is simply the nature of the work, which is dependent on one’s ability to completely detach from larger life concerns. Once you’ve been on the other side of the wall (or counter, as the case may be), it can be hard to eat at any restaurant without feeling a profound sense of respect, patience, and appreciation for the unseen effort that goes into every refilled glass of water, gracefully opened bottle of wine, and perfectly executed quenelle of ice cream.
One evening two weeks ago, I was wandering around somewhat aimlessly after a meeting on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. With nowhere in particular to be, I found myself heading toward a constant source of warmth and friendliness, not to mention excellent food: Family Recipe, the restaurant where I worked for six months upon returning from Japan. Housed on a rather nondescript Lower East Side block, sandwiched between a real estate company and a raucous bar, Family Recipe feels somewhat out of place. The restaurant’s neon sign, cleverly written in Kanji, reminds you that Chinatown’s bustling markets and noodle houses are only a few blocks south. Yet the sleek wood interior, low-key lighting, and open kitchen all suggest a fusion of understated Japanese design and a distinctly New York aesthetic.
As is the case at many casual restaurants in Japan, the kitchen at Family Recipe is completely open to the dining room, separated only by a narrow counter on two sides. When I was working in the kitchen, my coworker and I could always tell which guests were fellow restaurant denizens, because they’d often sit at the counter, the better to witness the back of house action. The sense of being a performer, always the case for any cook, was only heightened by the presence of these onlookers. When 8 o’clock hit and our first “wave” hit the door, then we really knew it was showtime.
On my most recent visit, I plopped myself down at the narrow counter and ordered an Echigo beer, made with koshihikari rice from Niigata prefecture. Light, crisp, and slightly sweet, it was the perfect way to ease into a leisurely FR meal. This was followed by the day’s dumplings, which were filled with a meatless mixture of kale and dried shiitake. Black truffle relish, a swipe of rusty red goji berry sauce, and a small pool of soy-vinegar dipping sauce provided a trio of earthy, bright, and acidic accents. Inspired by a recent piece in New York Magazine, I also ordered the cauliflower steak, which had been seriously revamped since my time in the kitchen. A single cross section of cauliflower, roasted until tender and caramelized, sat atop of pile of florets sauteed with pumpkin seeds and a splash of lemon. Flash-cooked cherry tomatoes, chewy edamame, and crunchy fried kale provided ample textural contrast, while a silky, vegan edamame puree unified the plate’s disparate elements.
As a final gesture of generosity from the kitchen, a tiny dish of the house specialty appeared on the counter above my seat. These days, every chef worth her cruciferous salt seems to have Brussels sprouts on the menu, but these sprouts truly surpass most other iterations I’ve tried (with the exception, perhaps, of Melissa Clark’s raw Brussels sprouts salad). Sauteed until crisp-edged and sweet, they’re finished with a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) helping of miso butter, sunflower seeds, and a scattering of fried shallots.
Since Family Recipe opened in the fall of 2011, it’s received quite a bit of press. Understandably, most writers tend to focus on the food, but the real secret to Family Recipe’s success is its people, namely chef/owner Akiko Thurnauer and the people she employs. Of all the reviews I’ve read, this one best captures Akiko’s spirit and the spirit of her restaurant. Working there was truly like being part of a family, and it was just as much of a pleasure to return as a customer. As I whiled away time at the counter, surrounded by familiar faces and the comforting, hectic buzz of the kitchen, I truly felt at home. And this, I realized, was perhaps the best way to spend an evening alone one could ask for.
231 Eldridge Street, between Stanton and Houston
New York, NY 10002
Tel: (212) 529-3133 · http://familyrecipeny.com