good shmeats

one food-loving vegetarian taking New York City's restaurants one plate at a time.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Freemans - Lower East Side

End of Freeman Alley, off Rivington between Bowery and Chrystie st.

To enter Freemans (a cozy, English-inspired American restaurant on the Lower East Side), one has to venture down a dimly-lit and seemingly forgotten alley. Luckily, this activity is not as anxiety-inducing as it once was. The effect, however, is still considerable – like breaking down on the side of a deserted road at night, and noticing a solitary cabin glowing safely in the horizon.

The walls inside Freemans are decorated – no covered – with animal busts: the standard deer heads are mounted alongside ox, wild boar, and even a goose, eternally suspended in mid-flight. There are six of them in all crowding the walls, not including various displays of horn and antlers and a human pygmy skull resting above the bar on a faded mantle. Despite my initial shock at so many dead animals (not to mention my solid commitment to vegetarianism), I actually found the critters contextually pleasant against the deep brown wood tables, purposefully peeling-paint, soft lighting, and exposed brick – they would fit in perfectly (if a little creepily) in my little cabin.

Even more pleasant was the glass of wine I ordered while waiting for my friend. Described as having "a bouquet of blackfruits and hints of white pepper," this French wine - Coistieres de Nimes, Les Galets Rouge ($8), was sturdy and warming. It set the mood perfectly for the triumphant meal I was about to eat.

Our waiter, a handsome flirt in a deconstructed t-shirt, graciously answered our questions, including my only half-joking inquiry if Devils on Horseback ($6) were bulls' testicles. Some free-associating memory synapse fired in my brain, which prompted the embarassing question. Hey, with that many dead animals on the walls... (For the curious, they're actually stuffed prunes wrapped in bacon - which I find an equally strange culinary creation).

My friend and I began our meal with a Winter Salad of fennel, clementines, pecans and celery root in sherry-truffle oil. I expected the overly-sweet and overly-dressed salad that trendy restaurants often make the mistake of serving. What we received was a crisp salad with a delightfully subtle blend of flavors and textures. It was equally refreshing and sophisticated.

For dinner, my friend considered ordering a Venison Stew with Roasted Butternut Squash and Creme Fraiche ($20), but decided instead on Trout with Lemon and Thyme ($16). Although I didn't taste it, I was impressed by the trout's deeply hued skin, which encased tender white flesh and a several full sprigs of thyme.

I ordered macaroni and cheese ($10) - the only vegetarian entree - and, at our waiter's suggestion, a side of buttered brussel sprouts. This meal defied my usual, "don't order what you can cook at home" rule, but I was nonetheless fully-satisfied. The brussel sprouts were boiled al dente and sauteed in copious pats of butter. I have been roasting brussel sprouts at home lately, so the boiled softness was a welcome change.

The macaroni and cheese is among best I have eaten. The delicate crunch of the breadcrumb crust gave way to an underbelly of chewy noodles coated in rich cheese sauce. Hints of nutmeg and translucent bites of onion complexified the sauce. Blissed out and satiated, I happily shared tastes of my meal with my friend. As he cleared our plates, our waiter revealed that he eats this same mac and cheese and brussel sprouts combination nearly every day when his shift ends. Swoon.

Full but hesitant to refuse dessert after such a sublime meal, my friend and I split a Vanilla Custard with Blueberry Compote. The silky custard, which came in a mason jar, was light but disappointingly noncommittal in flavor. It was accompanied by a dish of sauced blueberries, which my friend astutely observed were likely frozen. Overall the dessert was not a hightlight of the meal, but I did appreciate sipping the glass of soft, almond-scented sherry that my friend ordered alongside it.

With its back-alley location and embrace of taxidermy, Freemans is one of the quirkier restaurants I have visited in New York. But the food, ambiance (and handsome waitstaff!) make dining at Freemans well-worth the venture down the alley.

A tip for Freemans: Despite being slightly out-of-the-way, Freemans is popular amongst the Lower East Side's trendy crowd and fills up quickly. Arrive well before 7pm to ensure quick seating and before 7:15pm to avoid a significant wait.


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