Glugs of Olive Oil, Flurries of Cheese and Two New Menus Every Day
Posted July 17, 2018 4:47 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — The three owners of King restaurant gathered around a ripe wedge of Crucolo on a recent summer morning in Manhattan, cutting away thick, floppy pieces from the center of the cheese and eating it as they talked.
“We’ve got rabbit,” said Jess Shadbolt, one of the chefs. “Why don’t we take it off the bone, do rabbit and pappardelle for lunch?”
Clare de Boer, the other chef, nodded. “And you know what I was thinking?” she said. “That quail with a nice panzanella. With loads of anchovies and a vinaigrette and all of the pan juices.”
Annie Shi, who manages the dining room, reached for a bottle of wine. “Is it too early to taste?”
After 20 minutes of riffing, writing things down and scratching them out again, they had outlined two menus for their slightly French but mostly Italian restaurant in SoHo. “The Da Vinci Code, cracked!” Shadbolt said.
Every morning, she and de Boer draw up the day’s lunch and dinner menus with the ingredients they have on hand, then type them up on a fractured laptop in a mix of Italian and English, occasionally peppered with French.
“The menu should read like a poem,” de Boer said. “You should seduce the diner. People don’t know they want to eat deep-fried mackerel with aioli, so you’ve got to tell a story and get them on your wavelength.”
King, which opened nearly two years ago on the unremarkable corner of King Street and Avenue of the Americas, is sparsely decorated and brightly lit, with an open kitchen and paper-topped tables. The dining room is small and the menus are so brief — around seven dishes — that first-time visitors often flip them over, hopelessly searching for more options.
But the restaurant has won wide acclaim: In May, Shadbolt and de Boer were named two of the best new chefs in the country by Food & Wine magazine. In a two-star review in The New York Times last year, Pete Wells took note of “how many little moves they know that can raise a recipe from good to exceptional.”
With constantly changing menus and a straightforward, seemingly effortless style, King draws in those who want to eat well, but chafe at the pretensions of New York’s high-end restaurant culture: Trending ingredients. Instagram-baiting presentations. Absentee chefs with their names on the door.
“We cook for every service as if we were just cooking at our homes and Annie was serving the drinks,” Shadbolt said, “but for a few more people than we’d normally cook for.” The restaurant, running at full capacity, can serve about 135 diners over the course of a few hours.
De Boer added: “We’re not really trained chefs. We’re people who love eating and love cooking.” That self-effacement almost obscures the high levels of creativity and skill required to make everything at King appear so simple.
As Shi put it, “To be able to do simple to high standards, it has to be intentional.”
‘A restaurant as a magical space’
Shadbolt, 34, and de Boer, 28, met in 2013 as cooks at the River Cafe, a London fixture that Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray opened in the late 1980s.
They weren’t yet scheming to open their own restaurant, but they bonded on the line over a love of food. Both women considered the long, sunny lunches of their childhood vacations to be important reference points for great meals. And both attended Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, just three months apart, taking classes with founder Darina Allen.
They looked up to generous home cooking — particularly that of Italy and France — more than any brand of fine dining. And they loved the work of American food writer Richard Olney, who related the pleasures of French country cooking in the 1970s.
They met Shi, 28, when she was still working in finance, in London. A self-taught sommelier with precise, far-ranging taste, she builds the wine lists. She and de Boer briefly ran a supper club together, first in London and later in New York.
“We had this idea of a restaurant as a magical space where the food doesn’t get in the way,” said de Boer, describing the three partners’ vision for King. “Where the food doesn’t detract your attention from the real reason you’re there: to commune with people you enjoy.” As the chefs prepped for lunch back in the kitchen — browning rabbit legs and puréeing warm beans with their cooking water and olive oil — Shi set up in the dining room. She tasted a few new bottles of rosé that she was considering, and jotted notes on the table’s paper.
“Your wine by the glass is a weird kind of calling card,” she said. “I think it should be symbolic of the list, and the heart of the wine program.”
Before King even opened, Shi knew she wanted to pour glasses of rosé from Domaine Tempier, a famous Bandol estate whose bottles are reserved by wine buyers each year and can be tough to get.
“That wine is just everything we wanted to be,” she said. “A beautiful sunny day under olive trees, drinking a glass of Tempier and having grilled toasts with butter and anchovies.”
Producing this ideal in a restaurant isn’t all romance. Shi keeps an eye on the details, including pulling all the napkins to the very edge of the table, seam-side down. “The more we can draw everything closer together to the edge, the more space we can create here,” she said, pointing to the center of the table.
“Because it’s so simple, it really matters,” said Shi, whose approach in the dining room mirrors the one in the kitchen. (The chefs pluck out the green germ from inside every single clove of garlic, to mellow its flavor. “We don’t do much to the food, so that kind of thing is so important,” de Boer said.)
Tables at King are deliberately set without silverware. This is to encourage diners to use their hands to pick up salami slices and pieces of a crackerlike flatbread called carta di musica, which usually arrive first to the table.
The kitchen buys boxes of that flatbread from Italy, and each piece is warmed right on the flames of the grill until its edges char. Like most dishes at King, the carta di musica is finished with big glugs of olive oil — never drizzles. Sometimes, the server carrying it to the table will place a cupped hand on one side of the plate to catch the green and gold drips before they hit the floor.
“We want to see olive oil running down your chin!” Shadbolt said.
‘One shot to make it amazing’
In the basement prep space, Angeles Chavarria, who has cooked at King since January, rolled out fresh pasta and cut it with a knife into wide, flat ribbons.
The pasta would be tossed with melted butter at dinnertime, and twirled on top of wine-braised rabbit legs, still on the bone. This dish would appear on the menu as “rabbit au riesling with buttered noodles.” On another day, the pasta might go with rabbit saddles braised in milk, described as “pappardelle con coniglio al latte with lemon peel and sage.”
Chavarria would not be prepping pasta tomorrow. In fact, she said she had no clue what she’d be doing tomorrow. She likes it that way.
“As a cook, you have this idea that it’s by making something the same way over and over that you can get to perfection,” said Chavarria, dusting the pasta with semolina, “but I don’t think that’s true anymore.”
In the kitchens she had worked in before, chefs kept the same dishes on the menu for months, years even. Uniformity and consistency were valued. At King, where the menu changes from lunch to dinner, presentations can transform and evolve rapidly throughout a single service.
“We only have one shot to make it amazing,” Chavarria said. “We go for it every single time.” Every kitchen has its own fundamental way of doing things, from prepping garlic to blanching. At King, the cooks don’t boil vegetables for just a moment or two and then transfer them, still crunchy, into a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking and preserve the color.
Here, blanching is typically long and luxurious: Vegetables are pulled from the water and drained when they’re cooked through and tender. While still warm, inclined to soak up flavors, they are left to marinate in aromatics, or braised again until creamy.
“Maybe the vegetable is like mush,” said Chavarria, who was initially startled by the technique. “But you taste it and it’s stupid sweet. It tastes like what it is.”
As Shadbolt put it, “We prize flavor over aesthetics.”
The kitchen avoids most of what might be considered luxury ingredients, though bottarga, the salt-cured mullet roe, is a year-round staple. It is grated onto fennel and celery salads and that warm, buttered carta di musica. And there is always Tenuta di Capezzana olive oil on hand, along with Maldon sea salt, which the kitchen uses for almost everything, including seasoning raw meat and fish.
Castelluccio lentils and dried beans are in stock, from smooth white cocos to speckled borlotti. Gritty Italian polenta and blanched almonds find their way into seasonal desserts, like the caramelized upside-down cake made with a mix of nectarines and peaches. The fruit turns nearly translucent after two hours of gentle baking in caramel. And the cake, soft and golden all over, slumps beautifully at its edges.
In early July, King’s fresh deliveries of produce included snap peas, Romano beans and zucchini, an abundance of basil and many kinds of tomatoes. Strawberries were in, which meant Eton Mess, a classic British dessert.
At the staff meeting before dinner, one server had a question about that. “Is it structured? Is it layered?” he asked.
“More like, it’s all bashed up and then dumped in a bowl and mixed up together,” said Sade Zimmerman-Feeley, the sous-chef.
She was describing an ideal way to meld the flavors of ripe strawberries, crumbly meringue and softly whipped cream, of smearing them into one another so that every spoonful would hold the best of each.
What did it look like? Who cared what it looked like?
“It looks like a blob,” said Maya Rucker, another cook. A few servers nodded. They knew that on a summer night at King, it would be the first dessert to sell out.
Recipe: Peach Polenta Cake
Yield: 12 Servings
Total time: 2 1/2 hours
2 1/4 cups/470 grams sugar
2 sticks plus 6 tablespoons/305 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 to 8 peeled, pitted and halved peaches, nectarines or plums, or use a mix
1 1/2 cups/230 grams slivered almonds
1 scant cup/230 grams polenta
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon/70 grams all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Zest of 1 lemon
Crème fraîche, to serve (optional)
1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with 3-inch sides, and line with parchment paper so the paper reaches higher than the edge of the pan.
2. Place 1 cup/200 grams of the sugar in a saucepan with just enough water to cover, stir well and place over medium heat. When sugar turns the color of maple syrup, take off the heat and add 2 tablespoons/35 grams of the butter. Swirl to incorporate and pour into the cake pan. Place the fruit flesh-side down in a single layer all over the caramel, cutting a few pieces smaller if necessary to make it all fit. You can cram the fruit; it will shrink as it cooks.
3. Add almonds and polenta to a food processor and process until fine, then set aside in a large bowl with the flour, salt, baking powder and lemon zest. In the same food processor, cream the remaining butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, making sure each is emulsified before adding the next. Scrape the mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture and fold into the ingredients until smooth. Spoon the batter on top of the fruit and even out the top. Bake for about 2 hours, or until the top is golden in color, crackled and firm to the touch. Set the cake pan on a rack to cool.
4. Once the cake has completely cooled, loosen the sides with the tip of a knife and flip it over in one quick motion, directly onto a serving platter. Holding onto the upside-down cake pan and the platter at the same time, shake and bump the pan a little, if necessary, to release the cake, before lifting the pan away. Gently peel away any parchment paper. Slice and serve as is, or with a little crème fraîche on the side.