Joseph Leonard is one of those restaurants that might have you thinking, “Recession? What recession?”
On the first night that the little West Village restaurant started serving dinner, it was so packed that finding a spot to perch for a drink was a challenge, much less a table for four. And this was well after 9 p.m. on a weeknight.
But this level of interest in a place so new it had a dessert menu to tempt diners but weren’t actually equipped to serve dessert yet is unsurprising.
New York food folks have been working themselves up into a big froth over Joseph Leonard, after all, since Gabriel Stulman, a former owner of the much-beloved Little Owl and Market Table in the West Village, announced he was opening a new restaurant. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that Vogue.com did a “People Are Talking About” item about the carefully planned grandma’s garage sale meets farmhouse rustic decor of the place more than a month before it opened.
While I’m generally skeptical of this level of pre-opening hype, I have a great deal of respect and fondness for Little Owl and Market Table.
And, Joseph Leonard (named for Stulman’s two grandfathers), with its cozy setting and equally comforting lineup of dishes, is likely to please many — especially those who love salt, which chef Jim McDuffee (formerly of Bouchon Bakery) seems to be rather fond of.
For starters, let’s talk about the room — with a large square bar occupying the center of the restaurant, there’s not much space around it for tables. So, if you have a party that’s larger than two, expect to wait. The bar itself, however, if you can find a spot, is deep enough for you to perch there and have a meal somewhat comfortably.
The menu is peppered with both trusty standards and less familiar dishes — mussels and fries ($16) and frisee and lardons ($9) sit alongside a summery peach salad with cheddar, sunflower seeds and arugula ($8) and braised pork hock with crispy capers ($17).
We started with an order of oysters, which at $1.50 each were quite the bargain in the West Village. No complaints there.
Then, the assault of salt began.
Let’s be clear about one thing: I adore salt.
In fact, I have been accused of liking salty food — and cooking salty food — just a wee bit much.
Now, we had expected the salt cod brandade with sweet pepper relish and curry oil ($8; pictured below) to be salty. But not so salty that you found yourself grabbing at your water glass for a quick swig right after the first bite.
When that was followed with a delicious — but rather salty — shrimp and grits with Vermont cheddar and andouille ($10), we started to notice a trend.
Even the corn soup with onion creme fraiche ($7) was on the salty side.
Thankfully, this trend didn’t continue through our entrees.
The whole fried fish with greens, onions, raisins and olives ($18) was just swell — perfectly crispy outside and juicy and tender inside.
The linguini with squash, zucchini, pecorino, bread crumbs and a poached egg ($14) was similarly well-executed.
And the Old Bay soft shell crab with sweet corn, red onion, avocado, frisee and heirloom tomatoes ($18) was just divine.
In fact, it was so good that although I’m not generally a big vegetable person, I was so busy inhaling my food that before I knew it, the entire dish, frisee, tomatoes and all, had disappeared.
We were stuffed by that point — but were eager to see what sweets lay around the bend.
So it was disappointing to find that none of Joseph Leonard’s $6 desserts (including an enticing-sounding peach tart) were available just yet.
But you’ve got to cut a restaurant some breaks on its very first night serving dinner.
Dessert, we were told, would be on the menu very shortly after. And, who knows, in time, perhaps the salt problem will disappear as well.
Joseph Leonard, 170 Waverly Place (at Grove Street), in New York; 646.429.8383, www.josephleonard.com