Restaurant Review: Hunger and Desire, Stripped of Window Dressing, at Prune

Often, the phrases are more direct. One of the vegetables recently was “Corn on the cob with butter and salt.” You might see corn on the cob anywhere, but the butter and salt are the kind of concrete details that could make this a line from a poem about summer. Here’s another line: “plain boiled zucchini drowned in olive oil.” There were four delicious little squashes, cooked whole with their bright firm stems on, and there was indeed enough clean, grassy oil to drown them.

What’s that I hear? Is that an objection from someone who boils zucchini at home? Go ahead, knock yourself out. Just don’t try to tell me that I’ve been scammed. The whole objective of Prune is and always has been to cook the food of hunger and desire, strip it of the usual restaurant window dressing, and put it in front of you.

This is why the menu reads so well. Good writing comes from clear thinking, and Ms. Hamilton’s thoughts on what makes a satisfying dinner have always been extremely clear. What more could you ask from the start of a meal than sautéed chanterelles shedding mushroom juice and butter into a thick slice of toasted white bread? And what could you add to improve a main course of swordfish, grilled gently enough that a rosé blush is left in its flesh, with melted anchovy butter that runs into the tiny boiled potatoes?

Well, there is a garnish: a lemon wedge and a parsley sprig. This I suppose counts as restaurant window dressing, but because it comes from another era it also evokes a specific sense memory that gives meaning to the whole dish.

Photo

The chef Gabrielle Hamilton, right, opened Prune in the East Village in 1999. She now runs it with her wife and co-chef, Ashley Merriman.

Credit
Danny Ghitis for The New York Times

Over the years Ms. Hamilton has delegated the cooking to several people. I didn’t eat there under every regime, but I can say that the meals I’ve eaten since Ms. Merriman arrived from the Waverly Inn early last year have been at least as good as any I’ve ever had at Prune. Certainly the cooking is more steadily skillful and more varied than it was around the time of its last Times review, a dozen years ago, when Frank Bruni gave it one star.

Not everything sparkles; a ragout of artichokes and shell beans tasted about as gray as it looked. But for the most part Ms. Merriman has managed to nest her style inside her wife’s while, I think, expanding the boundaries of both.

Braised rabbit leg is a very Prune thing to cook, but I doubt that in 1999 it would have been presented, as it was earlier this summer, over yellow hexagons of carrot mixed with Calabrian chiles, mint leaves and pine nuts, with a handful of fried bread crumbs thrown over the top. That Mediterranean tilt could be Ms. Merriman’s work, but the dish still has a Hamiltonian directness.

The grilled branzino on the menu, on the other hand, is a classic Hamilton dish. The simplicity — a whole fish on a plate — has her name all over it, and the application of fennel oil is the sort of nuance — invisible, politely insistent — she prefers to screamingly interventionist moves.

The two women run a kitchen that is capable of intricate footwork, but that’s not what it’s known for. What they and their cooks do, you can too, generally. This was true back when Prune still served canned sardines loaded onto a plate with Triscuits, pickles and a bloop of mustard, a dish that didn’t take any cooking but did require enough nerve to fill a punch bowl.

The sardines are not on the menu, but cans are kept on hand for sentimental customers. The nerve is still there, although a less fraught word for it is confidence. It is confidence that allows Prune to place a scrupulously made martini on the cocktail list next to a Long Island Iced Tea that has been purged of its scuzzier ingredients but is still pretty louche.

It is confidence that gets you unshowy desserts like slices of black plums tossed with sugar, lemon zest and cardamom and spread out on buttered toast, or a bunch of Concord grapes lounging on a plate of chipped ice.

It is confidence that lets some servers wear pale pink crew-neck T-shirts and others V-necks of a riper, fleshier pink. Confidence that helps them thread through tables that are by anybody’s standards too close together; confidence that allows them to treat every customer, the ones who look like actors and the ones who look like retired semiotics professors, with the same attention and care.

It is confidence that lets this French-looking bistro with its much-put-upon marble bar and fuzzed-up mirrors play Yo La Tengo one night and Whitney Houston’s greatest hits on another and still believe that somehow it will all mean something.

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