Behind a Hidden Door, a Sleek Lair for Escaping New York

The New York Times Lifestyle 2 months ago

Last month I had dinner with a friend who lives a thousand miles away and doesn’t get to Manhattan as often as he once did. When I asked where he wanted to eat, he answered, a bit wistfully, “Somewhere that speaks of New York, a city I have lost touch with.”

At first, I looked for a place where we could be in the thick of it all. I thought of Bar Pisellino, that narrow glass sarcophagus run by Rita Sodi and Jody Williams, where you drink your sgroppino standing up between the window along Grove Street and the one along Seventh Avenue. People trickle in, eat some olives and a tuna tramezzino, and head out again. Although it’s about the size of a subway car, you get the feeling that if you stayed long enough, you’d eventually see everybody you know.

But a restaurant that truly speaks of the place New York has become over the past decade or so would be nearly the opposite of Bar Pisellino. This restaurant would not be in the thick of it all. It would be hushed, sheltered, exclusive, admitting no more than a handful of people at a time. It would protect those people, once they were inside, from crowds spilling in from the street, even from the street itself. It would join the steady march of new tasting counters and omakase hideaways. And it would illustrate the growing ease with which New Yorkers of means can glide through and above the fray, slipping from one cloistered room to another in black cars without touching down.

That restaurant would be a lot like Frevo, which has been serving suave, $124 tasting menus with a modern-French sensibility in Greenwich Village for the past four months. Frevo is the work of Franco Sampogna, who is the chef, and Bernardo Silva, the manager. Mr. Sampogna is from Brazil and Mr. Silva comes from Portugal; they met 10 years ago while working in restaurants in France, and quickly decided that one day they would open a restaurant in New York City that would give diners “that feeling of being in your own secluded safe haven,” as Mr. Sampogna put it.

The $124 tasting menus typically offer four savory courses and a dessert.

To get into Frevo, you first need to know that Frevo exists. There’s no sign. When you arrive at the correct address, what you see is an art gallery with just enough room on its white walls for the six abstract paintings that hang there fairly close together. The paintings are real paintings made by a real artist, Thomas Labarthe, who goes by Toma-L, but the gallery is not entirely a real gallery. If it were, the young woman who sits there keeping an eye on things would stare blankly ahead when you entered, instead of walking up to you with a smile and reassuring you that, yes, you’ve come to the right place. Then she reaches behind one of the canvases and it swings out on invisible hinges, leaving in its place a doorway through which you can see, illuminated in a large, dark room, a stainless-steel kitchen and a long, curving counter of polished quartzite.

You hop up on one of the 18 padded seats, and the door clicks closed. You are in. When the door opens again, typically not for another half an hour, in will walk another set of people who, like you, knew that the gallery was not a normal gallery.

Let’s say that the misdirection of the gallery and the secret door do not make these newcomers feel sufficiently insulated from the outside world. Frevo gives them the opportunity to sit at a round chef’s table in a back corner around which a curtain can be drawn, as in a hospital room.

Much of this comes right out of the neo-speakeasy handbook, although Frevo does throw itself into the act with an unusual level of commitment. The gallery, for instance, installed a new batch of Mr. Labarthe’s canvases around Labor Day. But each time I went to Frevo, I stared at that curtain. Nobody ever closed it while I was there, but it still reminded me how easy it is now for some New Yorkers to climb into the treehouse and pull the ladder up behind them.

I have to admit, though, that I like Frevo more than I like the version of New York that it brings to mind. The pleasures of this secluded safe haven are real, and Mr. Sampogna’s cooking is focused and refined. I haven’t been able to get his halibut dish out of my mind, for instance. The fish rests on a thin, crisp platform of fried bread shellacked with a dark mushroom marmalade; this miniature mushroom tart drinks up the flavor of the halibut as it goes, in the oven, from raw to that just-cooked state where its flesh slides apart into thick and almost fluffy white flakes. Alongside the fish are bulbs of melted fennel, their spiced cooking juices boiled down to a bittersweet syrup.

Frevo’s intimate dining room has room for 18 at the counter and a handful more at its only table.

Mr. Sampogna’s opening salvo often involves quinoa doing something quinoa doesn’t usually do, and doing it quite nicely. I liked its freshness when it was used in a salad spooned over a demitasse of creamy hummus; I liked its crunch when it was dehydrated and sprinkled over a few mouthfuls of black lentils topped with glistening orbs of smoked trout roe.

A dish from early July brought peas, at the tail end of their season, together with a rich pistachio-tarragon cream and white puffs of coconut mousse: light and charming. I wished Mr. Sampogna had exploited summer produce as sensitively when I went back in August and September. His kitchen is small enough that he could respond to the market day by day, but so far this doesn’t seem to interest him.

Frevo, at $124 for five courses, is not a huge splurge by New York standards, but servers try to inflate the total by pushing supplements. For $30 you can get Kaluga caviar troweled on to your first course; $20 gets you upgraded to a foie gras torchon instead of the less-thrilling mushrooms with gnocchi; it’s $18 for a serving of aged Comté before dessert, and another $30 to have white truffles with the cheese. This tactic is not as grating as it is at Per Se, where the supplements are piled onto a base charge of $355, but it is still a snag in the otherwise smooth hospitality provided by Frevo’s small crew of servers and cooks.

Everyone I’ve brought to Frevo has fallen under its spell, which is hard to resist. The music is slinky and sinuous. The room has a nocturnal theatricality; sitting at the counter with darkness behind you facing the spotlighted kitchen can feel like attending an extremely elegant campfire.

I still think Frevo is a perfect spot to familiarize yourself with the frictionless New York of 2019. Still, when my out-of-town friend arrived, we had our dinner at Bar Pisellino. We were hungry for a taste of the old chaos.

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