146 Essex Street
New York, NY 10002
Beauty & Essex is like a scene out of a movie. It is honestly almost surreal that places like this exist, in real life, but yet, there I was, pushing my way past a throng of people smoking on the sidewalk on an otherwise deserted Lower East Side street. In front of me was the glowing neon sign of what appears to be an all-night pawn shop; and in fact, it is one. Behind those glass front doors lies an actual pawn shop where actual people actually mill about buying actual antique jewelry. On the back wall of that late-night jeweler sits a nondescript plain door that just so happens to have an almost constant stream of girls in sequined dresses walking into and out of it. I followed them in.
Operagirl and I went here on a weekday night and it was hopping. The music was cranked so loud that you have to scream to have a conversation after elbowing your way through the mob to find a place to stand while waiting for a table to open. We had a 9:30pm reservation and still waited 40 minutes to get seated. On one side of the lounge is a bar and on the other are velvet chairs and sofas. It was only missing a fireplace. I saw a empty spot on the sofa and had just tapped Operagirl on the shoulder when a tall young brunette in a painted-on dress and her sixty-five year old "date" snagged it. "Damn. I was gonna tell to grab those seats while I grabbed us drinks, but that hooker beat you to it." And so it goes at Beauty & Essex. Escorts, cougars, gold-diggers, and the men who love them. People watchers looking for a celebrity to squeal at and scenesters joyously celebrating being at the city's current "it" spot. An actual mini-celeb like Operagirl. An actual mini-poseur like me. You feel both special for being a part of this kind of excess, because deep down it's huge fun, and depressed because you simultaneously know it's all fake and fleeting.
"They're serving free pink champagne in the ladies room!" Operagirl screams.
The thing is, since it feels like you're having dinner at a nightclub, you would be well within your rights to expect that the food would be just a diversion between cocktails; high end bar-food designed to keep you drunk enough to be happy without getting you drunk enough to puke on the pink champagne lady. And yet the food was surprisingly... good! So were the cocktails, by the way. As a cocktail guy, I was impressed.
When Beauty & Essex isn't being a great big circus of laughter and club music and glitter, it's basically Spanish-American small plates restaurant. The appetizer sized small plates are big enough to be small entrees and the entrees are small enough to be big appetizers. This means you share everything. We started with the Braised Short Rib Tamales and the Chili Relleno Empanadas. The Tamales were super creamy and super rich. I can't say I tasted any short rib in there, but it was pretty damn good nonetheless. The empanadas under a light but rich poblano-manchego-jalapeno cream sauce, were likewise extremely good and, while I've had better in Corona, neither of us could possibly complain. For the entree part of our meal, we ordered the Brick Pressed Chicken and the Oven Braised Chicken Meatballs. The brick pressed chicken didn't hold a candle to Danny Brown's version (how could it, the place has a Michelin Star) but was still extremely good. It was served with tangy baby tomatoes on a bed of polenta. Operagirl and I both loved the polenta, but she wasn't a fan of the decision to include tomatoes. I felt that it added a little oomph, to use a technical term. It didn't need the tomatoes, but I wouldn't get rid of them. The meatballs were the weakest part of our dining experience here. They weren't bad but they were sort of tasteless. Ground chicken is fine if you're on a diet, but I'd never consciously choose to make a meatball out of pure chicken if I were cooking at home. It just isn't hearty enough.
For dessert, I wanted to try the "box of doughnuts" which I heard were fantastic, but Operagirl wanted the Molten Chocolate Bread Pudding. Naturally, we did what any two semi-mature adults would do: we flipped a coin. I lost. If you don't know what bread pudding is, think of regular pudding but puff it up with a lot of air to give it a soft doughy texture. The bread pudding, under a big scoop of hazelnut ice cream, was delicious. I still wish we got the doughnuts.
Our experience at this carnival consisted of six drinks, two small small plates, two large small plates, and a dessert and a coffee, plus tax and tip. It came to a little about $220. I'd go back.
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