One of the conceits I greatly enjoy here at Augieland is attempting to predict a restaurant’s motivations and realizations of its chosen mission very early in its run. Seldom do I lack an opinion and confidence therein. Klee would be an exception to this rule and I’m not exactly sure what to make of that.
Wife and I stopped into Klee last week and I just can’t say what I think of where it will go and what it will be, or even exactly what it is to be honest. For every aspect of the experience there was a strong component and a weak. The strengths are strong enough that if the even balance tips that way I imagine it will become a good Tuesday/Wednesday place for people that live close, but if its weaknesses take the fore it will be another lonely box of a room along the uninspiring mid-Western avenues of Chelsea and Hells Kitchen.
The room is incomplete, which alone is no big deal. In fact some places are endearing for just that reason, inspiring a perception of earnestness to get to the task of making great food. The parts that are finished are quite nice – a very whimsical mosaic wall in the back, tasteful swathes of blond maple paneling, as well as great touches like retracting armrests along the banquette seating (so four can become eight, can become sixteen, and back again) and a recurring clover theme integrated into the door handles and booth ends (Klee means clover as well as the artist). The lights that are in are warm, the lights that are standing-in are too dim, the plans as described are for the uncomfortable temporary linen-covered tables to be replaced by maple-topped custom creations soon. It all feels like it has the potential to turn into a great and slightly different version of this type of room but could just as easily all come together to look like another place decorated out of the Ikea catalogue by a person with a knack. Can’t say as of yet.
The service was, on the good side, attentive and genuinely concerned with the guests’ enjoyment and thoughts on their experience. On bad side, the servers were far better versed in the chef’s pedigree and aspects of the room’s design than the food and wine. But all in all if there is anything you want a place that isn’t hitting on all cylinders to be strong in it is attentive, concerned service.
The menu has strong parts like a small bites section, changing daily specials, an array of affordable wines, and very evocative writing, while in execution it has drawbacks like the lobster rolls that take the “small bite” description more seriously than the product to dollar ratio, and a Gruner Veltliner that was a little to warm to drink (apologies offered by the server, before it was served).
Additionally and more importantly the food exhibited similar enigmatic dualities:
Small Bites: Smoked almonds, Bacalao croquettes, Lobster rolls. The almonds came out warm which meant they were chewy until they cooled. The smoke had given them a gorgeous mahogany color but no real smoke flavor, and they were decidedly lacking in salt, but when I requested salt a small dish of good sel gris was produced. The bun on the lobster roll was a perfect micro version of a top-split proper lobster roll bun, and the meat was quite sweet. The aioli however was way out of balance on the lemon oil side. The croquettes were unique in that the potatoes were pieces rather than mashed, but other than that as a package they were unremarkable.
FIRST: Kurobuta pork tonnato, large Sicilian capers, albacore tuna sauce: there are dishes out there that benefit from an integrity of ingredient while others are more about homogenization. Vittelo tonnato is one of those that gets better and better the more uniform it is. The best I know of is the recipe in Paul Bertolli’s book “Cooking by Hand” because it gives time few would afford for the variant layers of flavor to come together. In Klee’s rendition of the classic, pork of the black Berkshire pig, prized for its marbling, replaces veal and each ingredient is handled individually. Dollops of tuna mayo, and caper berries that have their bottoms lopped off so they stand proudly, flank delicate, folded, thin slices of poached pork. Once mashed all together the flavor was enjoyable though not deep, separately as served it was pleasant. The pork had a good chew and a respectable flavor, though it made little sense to feature such a lean cut from hogs renowned for their fat content. In the long run a nice, light appetizer for sure but not a remarkable new take on a well respected standard.
DAILY PASTA & SPECIALS: Monday: Viennese fried chicken, organic potato & mache salad: the conundrum of putting a finger on Klee at this early point is strikingly apparent in this dish. The chicken is breaded and fried to perfect, clean, airy crispness and topped with preserved lemon to accentuate this, the potatoes are boiled and dressed with lightly vinegary mustard and, in combination with the mache, serve as a very good side. However as skilled as you must be to make fried chicken this light and crispy, in the long run it seemed to lack soul: fried chicken on the bone served with potato salad this good should have a little gravity.
Snacks & Sides: Cauliflower baked with Gruyere cheese: I read this and thought of a casserole type dish with cheese sauce. What I was served was dry, curried cauliflower, roasted and topped with a sprinkling of grated Gruyere. Even though the restaurant did nothing to lead me to the au gratin assumption, I was let down and just failed to see the cheese and curry as a sensible combination.
For those of us coming so early in the restaurant’s run, dessert was a gifted small sampling of cookies and cakes suggestive of things to come. Whatever form the oatmeal cookie takes on the final menu get it, it was quite good (not City Bakery good, but quite good).
This dinner was a while ago already and I am sure if you go tonight some of my quandaries may already be settled. The truth is it took me time to write this place up because it took me time to figure out the impression it made. Ultimately I sensed potential but not promise, and I am not sure how I feel about that. Nothing was so inspired that I must return, and nothing was less than good. If it were your idea to pop over for dinner I would say “sure,” but it probably wouldn’t be mine.