Northern Spy Food Co. sounds like one of a thousand similar restaurants, but it’s on another playing field altogether
It’s almost embarrassing trying to explain Northern Spy Food Co. to friends.
“I found this fantastic little restaurant in the East Village,” you start. Already you can see their eyes start to glaze over, but they are polite, so they ask what sort. “It’s farm-to-table, all locally sourced with an emphasis on small producers—they even list all of their sources on their website, so you can see exactly where your scallops came from. The food is kind of a nouveau rustic American style.”
At this point they’ve begun looking for an escape. You get a little more insistent, knowing how you must sound. “The room is adorable! Almost everything is made of reclaimed wood—the tables are from old bowling alley lanes. They even have a little marketplace where you can buy handmade candy!” Before you can say another word, they’ve disappeared from you, an easily impressed rube who clearly hasn’t been out to eat in the past five years.
The best approach for introducing people to Northern Spy (511 E. 12th St., northernspyfoodco.com) is to say as little as possible and just drag them in with you. It shouldn’t be hard; its upper East Village location is handy to a multitude of other restaurants and bars, all of which are worth the effort. Say you’re going to take them to Momofuku Ssam Bar and then, when the wait is too long, wander purposefully down the street. Or have a cocktail or two at Gin Palace then whisk them away to get something to eat. “I know a good place near here,” you can say guilefully. “Trust me.”
Because once inside, there is no resisting Northern Spy’s charms. All that reclaimed wood gives the small space a cozy warmth, one welcome even in the depths of summer. Chalkboards proclaiming the day’s specials are propped casually against the wall, and the penny-candy jars full of wax paper-wrapped caramels (albeit beer and pretzel-flavored ones) are straight out of a rural general store dream.
The menu begins with a list of snacks, which could easily be incorporated into the starters section without angering any semanticists. If you’ve managed to hook a large group into coming with you, pile a few of these onto the table while you each select your two courses; if it’s just a few or you’re all pals, pick one or two and a starter and have at it, family-style. Pickled eggs are tinted a gorgeous beet red just like Great-Aunt Mildred used to make, but the aioli that comes alongside is as sophisticated as anything The NoMad is putting out. You’ll find yourself looking around the table for just about anything else to dip in it—and if you end up using your fingers, no one’ll give you any trouble.
Right now the starters are salad-heavy, which really just means they’re cold, and all the more welcome for it. Their kale salad is legendary in certain circles, crowded with cheddar and pecorino cheese and sweetened with roasted carrots. And anything with an egg on it is an easy get; eggs show their provenance more readily than most produce, and a fresh local egg is so far beyond your supermarket standards you may never go back to Eggland’s Best. For a main, pick any of the day’s specials. The menu has stalwarts, but take advantage of the kitchen’s access to the day’s best and casually breathtaking creativity (lamb with savory granola and yogurt? It works.) and let them guide you.
At some point during your meal at Northern Spy, your friends may sink into despair. They may even curse your name for bringing you there, or curse the chef for insisting on making such interesting, delicate, delicious food in the mold so many other restaurants have tried and failed to follow. Don’t worry. They’re just mad that they’re going to end up looking silly when they rave about it to their friends.
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