BY DONNA MINKOWITZ | Karen’s orange fish roe tacos were delicious, but they were each the size of my pinky (which is smaller than most women’s). The two miniscule tacos came, strangely, on an enormous branch of pine, looking as though a Christmas tree had been torn from the woods and hacked up to add a festive touch to our mid-May table.
It did add drama to our dinner. And each tiny taco was indeed pristine and lemony in its tiny shell, though the smoked fish that was supposed to be the main attraction consisted of dollhouse-sized bits and could barely be tasted. (These so-called “smoked fish tacos” are $14.) But when you’re still hungry after three courses, who needs drama?
My own appetizer, foie gras and langoustine ($19), puzzled me because it was not appetizing. To those of you who say it serves me right for eating force-fed duck, you’re probably right. But I was surprised that somehow Acme Restaurant, Noho base for the “new Nordic” cuisine that is currently the world’s most chic, had managed to make foie gras that wasn’t at all silky or luxuriant, and to make langoustine (a smaller, delicate, delicious European relative of the lobster) that tasted like nothing. The foie gras, which in terrine form at least tastes to me like liver that has somehow been made perfect and even addictive, didn’t taste like much of anything, either. It did have a discomfiting, slightly wet texture.
Acme Restaurant has a high tariff, but neither the flavor nor friendliness to justify it
The only element of the dish I could really perceive with my taste buds were the white walnuts scattered throughout the other two foods, which tasted just fine. Did I mention we were splurging at ridiculous risk to our solvency for my birthday dinner?
I’ve always loved pricey restaurants, though increasingly I am not sure why. I grew up working class, and the first time I entered a rich people’s restaurant, at age 14 in Truro, Massachusetts, I wanted to go back again and again until I was mentally stuffed with the beautiful garden setting and the silver breadbasket from which the waiter haughtily lifted out, for each member of my family, a single slice of bread with his silver tongs. (My father, bless him, to the waiter: “You can just leave the whole basket on the table, ‘ cause we’re gonna want more.”)
That restaurant, at least, had delicious entrées. (Thirty-seven years later, I can still remember the best bluefish I have ever eaten.) But at Acme, my entrée, Cast-Iron Duck Egg with peas, garbanzo beans, and spinach, was only as tasty as something I myself might throw together at home on an indifferent night. It was much less satisfying than that dinner I might cook at home because of its wee size ($14). There was one, count ‘em, one fried duck egg on the child-size cast-iron skillet delivered to me on a bed of hay. (The bored, clearly suffering waitress did not want to answer our questions about the food, but finally told us, gritting her teeth, that the hay had not been used to add any flavor to the dish, but was merely decorative. In a telephone interview, a manager, Charlie Smith, informed me that the hay was intended to “evoke a duck laying an egg in a bed of hay.”)
I came to wish that my entrée hadn’t been served in its skillet, because the pan’s heat continued to cook the duck egg on the table, fucking up both its flavor and texture. Oh, it was also too salty. The peas and spinach did taste nice and fresh, but there were not many individual peas or spinach leaves to go around.
Acme’s chef, Mads Refslund, previously worked in Copenhagen at the world’s most famous restaurant, Noma, where founder René Redzepi inaugurated a cuisine based on local Scandinavian ingredients available during the long winters there, including, yes, pine, hay, ash (not the tree, but the black stuff left over after you burn something), and a few forageable herbs and vegetables native to Scandinavia, such as the sea buckthorn.
I was wondering if the big branch of pine had somehow been used to impart a smell or flavor to the trout-roe tacos, but Smith said no; the Christmas branch, too, was meant to be “evocative.” Karen’s entrée, Chicken and Egg, was not evocative at all as far as I could see, but it was much better than my egg and vegetables. Silky, homey poached chicken with roasted potatoes and fried eggs, it was unctuous and delicious, and also served in a big-enough portion (although for $28, I should hope so).
When I’d made the reservation, I told the restaurant it was for a birthday dinner and asked them to put a candle in one of our desserts. Did they inquire which of us was the birthday girl? Did they plop a candle in my dessert plate? Of course not. That would imply Acme was interested in making its diners feel welcomed, valued, and happy. They did let us buy dessert, though. While Acme doesn’t describe savory dishes at length on the menu, they do go into detail about the sweet ones. Karen’s was denoted as “Coffee with cream and sugar — a dessert coffee set as a panna cotta and textured with caramelized coffee beans. Crumbled biscotti with maple and caramelized lemon is a nice sweet with your ‘coffee’ ($12).” It was the most oddly thin confection I have ever seen, only an eighth of an inch high and consisting of a slightly sour white gel spread out minutely on a plate and studded, here and there, with coffee beans. It was only slightly sweet, and we ate it mainly because we were hungry.
My own final course, chocolate mousse ($12), was described as being “quenelled around rhubarb crème fraîche. This sits in rhubarb syrup and is topped with puffed red and white rice.” I didn’t notice the rice, but the rhubarb sauce tasted vaguely appealing, almost like pomegranate. The chocolate, though, was so unsweet that it was more like an appetizer than a dessert, and the crème fraîche was about half as rich as it ought to have been. The mousse wasn’t terrible, but the best that could be said about it was that it was interesting.
In the end, the best thing about Acme Restaurant was probably the wines. Feeling celebratory at the beginning of the meal, I ordered a glass of nonvintage Val de Mer Cremant de Bourgogne rosé, a French sparkling wine with delicate pink bubbles ($18). It was lovely. And until this week, Acme offered a very affordable $18 wine-pairing offer with its early-evening prix fixe menu, which has unfortunately just been scrubbed from the menu. Under that wine-pairing, Karen got glasses of three delicious wines: With the trout roe tacos, she got to sip (okay, we both got to sip) Broglia “il Doge” Gavi di Gavi, an aromatic and peachy-tasting Italian white from the Piedmont region. With the Chicken and Egg, she got a Tensley Syrah “Los Padres” from the central coast of California, a beautifully-colored purple wine with a taste of violet and a nice finish, acclaimed by the wine critics at the Wine Advocate. With the panna cotta, she got a glass of tawny port — nope, the waitstaff couldn’t tell us the producer, though the higher-level staff who tried to find the information for us did get progressively nicer. It was very tasty, though. Travis Benvenuti, the sommelier, said in an email that it was Niepoort Morgadio da Calçada Reserve.
Final nice thing about Acme: they played terrific swing music. Have some wine, listen to the music, and go someplace else for dinner.
Acme Restaurant, at 9 Great Jones Street near Broadway, Manhattan (acmenyc.com), has a ramp that wheelchair users can take to get up the one step from the outside. There is one wheelchair-accessible restroom on the ground floor; other restrooms are down a long, dark, steep staircase.