My good friend Mint Chip was in town a few weekends ago, staying at our apartment. In addition to shopping, touring the waterfall installation on the East River and seeing a Broadway show, Empanada Boy and I wanted to take her out to some good meals. We went one night to Otto and had a tasty and affordable meal of pizza and antipasti, which we were only able to enjoy after enduring an hour-long wait. Wanting to avoid the wait but continue the trend of tasty and affordable, we decided to try Essex. We had both heard of the restaurant, but EB gets the credit for suggesting it. (I apologize for having grainy pictures again. These were taken with Mint Chip’s iPhone because I left my camera at home.)
The restaurant is all but unmarked when you approach it from the Essex Street side. There are small silver letters that read “Essex” on the side of the building, although these could just as easily refer to the street name. Inside, the restaurant is split onto two levels with a bar and booths downstairs and more tables upstairs. Exposed brick walls set the tone for the industrial chic decor, which includes a warehouse-like ceiling and simple metal railings. We were there on a Monday night, which meant $1 oysters and half-price drinks, including cocktails, beer and wine by the glass. Cocktails seemed generally too vodka-y and sweet for my tasteâ€” EB learned this the hard wayâ€” but the wine and beer lists were decent. Needless to say, the poor graduate student in me was pleased. We ordered nine oysters and awaited their arrival eagerly.
The oysters (see top photo) were remarkably fresh and clean, better than some we’d tried recently at a much fancier place in Chicago. They slid down nicely, with no need for the marring taint of Worcestershire or retro cocktail sauce. EB decided to pair some turf with his surf and ordered the lamb chops with chorizo dumplings over Asian slaw. The meat was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and, while not the most amazing lamb chop we’d tried flavor-wise, it may have been the best under $20. I wasn’t a huge fan of the chorizo dumplings. They were too heavy and a bit under-spiced. Small pieces of chorizo were also present in the main course I ordered: steamed mussels in a tomato cilantro broth. The broth was interestingâ€” like a cross between a cioppino and a salsa. The chorizo wasn’t Mexican, but it also didn’t have the depth of flavor of a top notch Spanish chorizo. Still, at $10 (plus $2 for frites) this, might be one of the best deals in New York. Essex also has a traditional garlic and white wine preparation that I’m hoping to try soon.
Mint Chip ordered the blackened catfish over shrimp, potato and scallion hash. The fish was perfectly done and well seasoned, and the shrimp and hash beneath it were surprisingly delicious. Amazingly, the $16 cost of this meal came pretty close to what it might cost to make the dish at home in my own kitchen.
All in all, EB and I were pleased with the quality and affordability of the meal we ate at Essex. I think Mint Chip enjoyed herself too. We plan to come back soon, preferably on a weeknight when there are always special deals of some kind. Tuesday nights offer all-you-can-eat mussels for $14, although I’m not sure I could eat more than I did. Even better, Wednesday nights bring $16 Maine lobsters. I think I know which day we’ll be coming back and exactly what EB will be ordering when we do.
120 Essex St. (at Rivington)
New York, NY 10002