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Food

Big Names and $38 Salads

Posted May 8, 2018 5:41 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Drilling a flagpole into the artificial-birch-wood floor of the dining room at Freds, the 22-year-old restaurant in the Barneys New York flagship store on Madison Avenue, and staking out the space as essential territory in any evocation of The Real New York, would certainly leave you advancing a controversial position.

And yet, there is a case to be made.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit for lunch one rainy Monday afternoon. My friend had arrived early and, displaying the healthy sense of self-importance necessary to psychological survival in Manhattan, demanded a table better than the dark one in a corner we were going to be given.

Ordinarily we might have enjoyed the privacy of something quieter, but we wanted an unobstructed view in the event that Michael Cohen showed up. A few days earlier, Cohen, the 45th president’s embattled lawyer, had eaten at Freds with Donny Deutsch, the advertising executive and television commentator who last year, during a segment on “Morning Joe,” invited President Donald Trump to a round of physical combat (“Donald, if you’re watching, we’re from Queens. I’ll meet you in the schoolyard, brother”). Later, Page Six reported that Deutsch was dating the president’s second former wife, Marla Maples.

Deutsch is a long-standing patron of Freds, which is not short on affection for boys from Queens who have done well enough to make a habit of $38 salads, or lacking in tolerance for those from the Five Towns whose offices have just been raided by federal law enforcement officials. There, but for the grace of the RICO statute, go so many of us.

Freds is the creation of another boy from Queens, chef Mark Strausman, who grew up in Flushing, as he recounts in “The Freds at Barneys New York Cookbook,” which he wrote with Susan Littlefield and which has just been published by Grand Central Life & Style.

Strausman flunked out of various colleges before rising to prominence in the late 1980s, serving Tuscan food to East Side plutocrats. The Pressman family, which had established Barneys as a menswear outlet in downtown Manhattan in the 1920s before eventually turning it into something far more ambitious, brought him in to develop a restaurant similar to those at Harrods or Harvey Nichols in London where, with great novelty at the time, you could have sushi served to you from a conveyor belt.

The result, which opened in 1996, was a restaurant in a department store rather than a department-store restaurant, which carries a meaningful distinction.

The department store evolved in the early 20th century into a place of leisure, intended to transform the consumer’s understanding of shopping as an experience rooted in pleasure rather than duty. In 1914, Lord & Taylor opened in Manhattan with a manicure parlor for men, a mechanical horse and three places to eat. By midcentury, the department store had become a more overtly gendered environment, and the sort of restaurant you would find in it bore few traces of masculine inclination.

Freds, which eventually spawned branches downtown, in Chicago and in Beverly Hills, California, was in its own way revolutionary because it extended itself to both sexes, to the enterprising and busy, refusing to encode female indolence. “I have always hated the term ‘ladies who lunch,'” Strausman told me.

Absent were the pastels and aviary themes that distinguished similar ventures. The portions were — and remain — quite large to match the appetites, symbolic if not literal, of those who come. The food is the food of people who relish consistency (the trainer every morning at 5:30, dinner every Tuesday at Nello): Caprese salad, pizza margherita, tuna tartare, Belgian pommes frites, chicken Milanese, chicken paillard, chicken soup. Freds’ chopped chicken salad — a tumble of avocado, bibb lettuce, pears, string beans and meat — has, for years, been the most popular item on the menu.

The recipe is included in the new cookbook. But more than a cooking manual, the book comes to us as a memoir and artifact for members of the restaurant’s de facto fraternity, which over the years has included Laura Bush, Bruce Springsteen, Rudy Giuliani, Jack Welch, Hugh Grant, Julianna Margulies, various members of the Tisch family and executives of the Corcoran real estate empire. (I asked Strausman how long Cohen had been coming. “I don’t know,” he said. “We started noticing him when he made himself be noticed.”) On the day I visited most recently, the dining room was busy and full, as it has been every time I have gone over the past decade. My friend and I were flanked by two Argentine tourists. There were tables of businessmen; a table of women in headscarves; a table of women who looked as if they had watched “Jersey Shore” and not been frightened.

Strausman no longer presides over the day-to-day operations of the dining room; instead it is Alfredo Escobar who stands in the role of executive chef, having come to this country from Mexico when he was 16 and worked his way up from a job as a line cook. This, in the end, is New York.

Freds’ Chicken Salad With Balsamic Dressing

Yield: 4 main-course servings, or 6 appetizer servings

Time: 45 minutes, plus roasting and cooling

Ingredients

For the chicken:

1 4-pound chicken (or a store-bought rotisserie chicken, in which case skip to the dressing below)

1 1/2 tablespoons salt

1/2 bunch fresh thyme

1 lemon, quartered

2 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

For the dressing:

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons sugar (optional)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad:

1 cup fresh pears diced in 1-inch pieces

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 large handfuls mixed greens, such as a boxed mix with fresh herbs

1 cup string beans cut in 1-inch pieces, blanched (from about 1/4 pound beans; see note)

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1/2 cup minced onion

2 ripe avocados, cut into 1-inch cubes

Preparation

Step 1: Roast the chicken (if you’re using a cooked, store-bought chicken, skip this step): Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place a rack in a roasting pan. Rub 1 tablespoon salt around the inside of the cavity, then stuff it with the thyme, lemon and garlic. Tie the legs closed with cooking twine. Rub olive oil over the entire bird, and sprinkle with 1/2 tablespoon salt and the black pepper. Place on the rack and roast for 72 to 80 minutes. After 72 minutes, begin testing for doneness by inserting a meat thermometer into the leg, close to the bone. The chicken is done when the thermometer reads 165 degrees. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Step 2: When cool enough to handle, remove the skin from the chicken. Use your hands to remove all the meat (remember, it will be hotter internally) and shred into 2-inch strips. If you’re not going to make the salad for a few hours, place the meat in the refrigerator, but be sure to remove it and let it come to room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes before serving, to bring out the best flavor.

Step 3: Make the dressing: Place all the ingredients except the oil in a food processor and pulse for about 30 seconds, until everything is combined. With the machine on low, slowly drizzle in the oil until dressing is emulsified.

Step 4: Assemble the salad: Drizzle pears with lemon juice to prevent them from browning. In a large mixing bowl, combine pears, greens, beans, tomatoes, onion, avocado and half the chicken meat. Add some of the dressing and toss to make sure everything is lightly coated, adding more dressing if needed. Divide the mixture equally among 4 or 6 plates. Lay the rest of the chicken on top and serve immediately, passing the remaining dressing in case people want to add more.