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Restaurant Review: Some Food, a Plate, a Room. That’s Enough at King, in SoHo.

A friend who has made herself a regular at the SoHo restaurant King sums up its appeal, with deep approval, as “food on a plate in a room.” This undersells the place — King offers much more than that — but she has a point.

The restaurant, which opened in September, is not a show-off. The dining room is small, tidy and nearly square, painted the pale color of butter in the winter. Windows stretching to the ceiling along the north wall look out on the dormered Federal townhouses of King Street. The facing wall is broken up with a single abstract painting, a doorway to the kitchen and a long opening behind which the four people who make up the entire kitchen staff can be seen at work. It is a room content with being just a room, and letting you focus on the people you’re with and the food that’s on the plate.

There will be papery curls of carta di musica before anything else arrives. Brushed with rosemary, this Sardinian flatbread shatters when you tap it. It will be gone in a minute, but it serves as a brief introduction to King’s culinary realm.

After this gift from the kitchen, an order of panisse may seem redundant. It isn’t. At King, these chickpea fritters are long, thin tongues that puff up like pommes soufflés and are scented all over by fried sage. They’re beautiful. They were on the menu last month, but they may not stay long.

 

King opened in September. Its two chefs are alumnae of the River Cafe in London. Credit David Williams for The New York Times

Nothing does. King’s two chefs, Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, cook a different slate of dishes each night. The changes tend to be evolutionary, drawing from a fixed repertoire of ideas. The first time I had halibut there, it was grilled, and its skin had been deeply charred without drying out the rich white meat right under it. The plate was filled out with spinach and white coco beans soft enough to mash with a spoon.

The next time I ate halibut at King, it was poached, the beans were back and the greens had been replaced with small artichoke hearts simmered in white wine and amaranth. I’ll eat either dish again in a minute if the chefs give me a chance.

Their food borrows liberally from the home cooking of those parts of Italy and France where New Yorkers of a certain generation dreamed of buying a summer house. This style has gone out lately, but a few years ago it was the default for the breed of American chefs who led their staff in fava-shucking parties each spring. Ms. Shadbolt and Ms. de Boer practice an English variant of the style they learned in the kitchen of the River Cafe in London.

Anybody who’s eaten at that restaurant or has gone to bed with one of its cookbooks will experience occasional flashbacks at King. Polenta and almond flour go into a classic River Cafe dessert and into a different one that recurs at King. If you see it on the menu, especially if it is weighted with nectarines, pounce.

 

Halibut with small artichoke hearts and white coco beans. Credit David Williams for The New York Times

Chefs can’t get far on imitation. They need to understand the how and why of things, and Ms. Shadbolt and Ms. de Boer do. Once you get past King’s debt to River Cafe, what you really notice is how many little moves they know that can raise a recipe from good to exceptional.

Olive oil blended with nettles is an excellent sauce for boiled fingerling potatoes. What makes King’s even better is that a few fingerlings have been crushed into the purée, so from time to time you bite into a chunk of potato hiding inside the sauce. This was a side dish that traveled alongside a guinea hen, roasted whole with a bath of verdicchio in the bottom of the pan. Wilted nettles sprawled over its crisp skin. With a squeeze of lemon, it was one of the most appealing guinea hens I had ever come across.

If you eat at King often, you can see the chefs making subtle adjustments to keep flavors in balance. Ravioli under spring peas and raw pea shoots were filled with minimally seasoned ricotta one week. The next, the ricotta inside floppy tortellini got an extra spur from lemon zest. The citrus might have stepped on the sweetness of the peas, but it helped the tortellini, because the only competition on the plate was fresh marjoram.

And when some new seasonal ingredient appears on the scene, you can see the chefs strike like cobras. Saltwort, the salt-marsh-loving succulent that Italians call agretti, was the exciting foundation for a May salad built with wild arugula and raw ovals of asparagus stalks, making one of their first appearances of the year. Salty goldenrod bottarga was shaved over everything, even the white rim of the plate.

 

King’s two chefs, Jess Shadbolt, left, and Clare de Boer cook different dishes each night. The changes tend to be evolutionary, drawing from a fixed repertoire. Credit David Williams for The New York Times

To be won over by King, it helps not to expect things you’ve never seen before. Even those meeting saltwort for the first time will find that the rest of the meal looks familiar. What Ms. de Boer and Ms. Shadbolt offer is not a wild vision of new ways to cook but a solid vision of how to eat. They put pleasure at the table above gymnastics on the plate. For reasons I don’t want to understand, I associate this trait with other female chefs around town, including Rita Sodi, Missy Robbins, Gabrielle Hamilton, Sara Jenkins, Angie Mar and April Bloomfield, another River Cafe alumna.

At King, the vision extends to how to drink. Annie Shi, who superintends the dining room and is a third business partner with the chefs, can offer guidance with the wine list. She favors French and Italian producers, many of them not quite famous, whose wines gracefully weave in and around the cooking.

At the compact bar by the front door, cocktails are put together with the simplicity and respect for aperitif wines that you find in Italy. There is a kir and a sbagliato, which is nothing more than Campari and red vermouth on the rocks topped up with prosecco. These and other drinks slip into the bloodstream without knocking the palate out of alignment.

The desserts are cafe style. They don’t look like extraterrestrial landscapes but rather recognizable slices and scoops.

One of the few things at King that didn’t make perfect sense was a tiramisù; it went too heavy on the espresso and too light on the mascarpone. Every other dessert was just what I wanted, even when I didn’t know I wanted it. Chilled, thickened cream flavored with Pernod? I’m a fan now. I’m also a new convert to something called the Colonel. It’s a cup of lemon granita served with a tiny pitcher of cold vodka. You pour one over the other.

I have no idea why the vodka makes the granita taste better, but it does.

 

A Day in the Life of a Food Vendor

The work is both demanding and routine. Mr. Ahmed commutes five or six days a week, clocking eight-hour shifts. His ride into Lower Manhattan is just over an hour, so if he can find a seat on the E train, he sleeps, squashed between the bodies of strangers, or watches part of a movie on his phone. Last week it was “Asoka,” based on the life of an Iron Age Indian ruler, played by one of his all-time favorite actors, Shah Rukh Khan.

But today, Mr. Ahmed checks his email first, hoping for news from one of the preschools processing the application of his youngest child, Karen. Nothing yet.

By 7:15 a.m., he has reached his usual spot, which he found three years ago by word of mouth: a wide swath of sidewalk in front of the BNY Mellon building that gets hectic around noon when those in the financial district crowd — a mix of Wall Street bankers and construction workers, students and tourists — are all looking to spend $ 5 or $ 6 on a fast, hot lunch.

Mr. Ahmed, left, and Sayed Shabana positioning the cart. Numerous regulations cover its placement. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Though there are occasional turf wars among vendors, Mr. Ahmed has never had to fight for space. He buys breakfast — a coffee and doughnut — from a nearby vendor who gives him what Mr. Ahmed calls a “neighbor discount.”

“Good morning, neighbor!” is his standard, sunny greeting for the half-dozen other carts on his block.

Like many cart owners, Mr. Ahmed hires someone to deliver the cart to him every morning and return it to a garage each night. (Other owners hitch the carts to their cars and drive them in, then face the ordeal of finding a parking spot.)

But by 7:40, Mr. Ahmed is getting antsy; the driver is late. “Maybe he has a flat tire,” he says. He stays calm, though sometimes he can’t help but imagine the worst. Mr. Ahmed was a New Yorker on 9/11, and this part of the city holds meaning for him. “Many people, they went to work like me, they thought it was an ordinary day,” he says.

Salman Akhtar, right, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, is the first customer of the day — at 9:30 a.m. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

It’s cloudy and cold for April, and Mr. Ahmed is still sleepy, but he won’t be tempted by the hot jolt of a second coffee. He knows he can’t leave the cart to go to the bathroom (at the Target across the street, or the Whole Foods a few blocks away) until his partner shows up hours from now. Another coffee, this early in the day, would be way too risky.

The driver pulls up with Mr. Ahmed’s cart at 7:52, and the two men work quickly to wheel it into place. Inside, the cart is cold, clean and packed with boxes of ingredients.

The food comes from a commissary kitchen attached to the garage in Long Island City, Queens; the city requires that food carts be serviced and supplied by a commissary, and there are many of them, of varying sizes, with different owners, all around New York.

At an extra cost, this one has provided everything Mr. Ahmed needs for the day: heads of lettuce, a few dozen tomatoes and potatoes, ready-sliced halal lamb, several bags of boneless chicken thighs, two 12-pound bags of basmati rice, four large plastic containers of potable water for cooking and washing, clamshell containers and napkins.

Chicken is prepped for the anticipated lunchtime rush. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Mr. Ahmed ties on his apron and pushes a few boxes underneath the cart so he can squeeze inside and get to work. Any boxes peeking out beyond the cart’s footprint could result in a fine (penalties can run up to $ 1,000), as could parking his cart closer than six inches to the curb, or 20 feet to the building entrance. Mr. Ahmed knows all the rules by heart.

He connects the 40-pound propane tank and turns on the flattop grill and burners. He cuts lettuce and tomatoes, browns lamb and vast amounts of chicken. He takes care, in the cramped kitchen space, to keep his vegetarian cooking separate. For a long time, Mr. Ahmed chops onions in silence.

“If I play music or anything, I get distracted,” he says. “I forget the salt.”

Although Mr. Ahmed had little cooking experience when he started, his wife, Sheren Akter, says his food is better than that at most other carts — less greasy, more flavorful, well seasoned.

His menu consists of about 20 dishes, most of them cooked to order, but regulars know to ask for the chicken biryani, flecked with fried onion and cilantro, garnished with half a hard-boiled egg, all for $ 6, with a drink. He’d like to raise the price, but worries that he would lose customers.

Mr. Ahmed, his partner and an assistant work to keep up with the lunch crowd. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

To make the biryani, Mr. Ahmed fries the onion until it’s translucent. He drops in whole cinnamon, star anise, green cardamom pods and bay leaves. Before the chicken goes in, he adds garlic paste and a spoonful of ghee. He cooks the rice in the same simmering pot, adding water and a prepared spice mixture that includes dried papaya and plums. All the passers-by, those with travel mugs and employee ID badges, or those walking their dogs or pushing their strollers, inhale the familiar perfume of Mr. Ahmed’s chicken biryani.

Salman Akhtar, a pre-med student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, is Mr. Ahmed’s first customer of the day, at 9:30. The men chat in Bangla, and when Mr. Ahmed speaks in Bangla, he is louder and faster, quicker to tell a joke.

Mr. Ahmed came to New York alone, at age 23. He had studied accounting and commerce at Dhaka College, but in Queens, it took him a few months to find a job. By then, he owed his roommates in Sunnyside almost $ 3,000.

He worked off the debt, busing tables and driving cars. But later, after Mr. Ahmed married and had children, he dreamed of a small business that he could expand. NYT > Food