The Magic Mirror
Place: Beauty & Essex
Location: 146 Essex Street, Lower East Side, New York
Type: Small Plate / Sharing
Price: Moderate to High
Rating: "A" - Amazing
Perhaps it's a sign of the changing times, but it seems it's getting more and more difficult these days to arrange having a meal with friends or family. Nowadays, the meal itself is becoming auxiliary to some other activity like social drinking, clubbing or even shopping.
So it's always exciting when someone opens a place that treats in equal measure the desire for a sexy and fun social setting and the need for exemplary service and sumptuous food. It is in many ways a marriage of the senses, where looking good, feeling good and eating well come together in a couple of hours of gustatory utopia. Such is what happens at Beauty & Essex.
Sultry is the appropriate word to describe the sweeping staircase that connects the upper and lower levels. Among other decor, the enormous chandelier that floats over the reception and the seductive draped beading of the upstairs Pearl Lounge are reminiscent of the roaring 20s, definite throwbacks to the era of Prohibition. Juxtaposed on palates of cool grays and browns, the fiery red seating at the front bar and the playful touches of gold and amber in the proceeding rooms seem to smolder, like glowing coals of passion. The restaurant's attempt at seduction succeeds both in design and application.
From the hosts to the bartenders to the wait staff, service is efficient, competent and engaging. It is always a pleasure to begin an experience not just with a cordial greeting but a smile and an air of openness. One can always tell how in-house staff is treated by the way they describe their favorites on the menu. Is it rehearsed? Is it overly enthusiastic? Are they describing textbook culinary nuances or painting a picture of their own intimate experience with the food? In the case of Beauty & Essex, the staff excels. One may not have the same preferences as the servers, but that they truly enjoy the food should be good enough encouragement for any discriminating client.
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It was indeed hard to imagine that the brilliant Chef Chris Santos would be able to duplicate his success at Stanton Social. After all, Stanton Social was in many ways a pioneer of sorts, taking the social communing aspects normally associated with chinese dim sum or spanish tapas and giving it a modern, New York spin. The eclectic menu and the use of ingredients that are multi-cultural in flavor is what makes Stanton Social authentically New York. As with anything that follows an original, the challenge at Beauty & Essex is whether it can live up to, or perhaps even surpass, its predecessor.
For this very reason, many restaurateurs and chefs make their restaurants either an exact duplicate of, or completely different from, their previous projects. For this daring move alone, the owners behind Beauty & Essex ought to be commended. But this little Lower East Side gem holds its own with more than a few surprises.
Built on 10,000 sq. ft. of an old furniture store, Beauty & Essex sets out from the beginning to disorient and mislead in a good way. With a front marquee designed to look partly like a relic of cinema's golden era with darkened sections of the old signage betraying a bit of its history, very few first-time patrons would be able to imagine what's inside. That is, of course, assuming they had not googled or studied any of its website images.
The front parlor, and it is indeed a "front" in its dual meaning, is a pawnshop/antique/collectible store where ladies behind two counters and a gentleman by the door greet guests. We assume either by the look of confusion, the certainty of direction, or the curiosity towards the display, the staff is able to tell whether a guest is looking for the restaurant or simply ambling in, intrigued by the store.
The brilliance of this ploy isn't as much the trip from what seems like a different establishment to another. That's certainly been done before from the old speakeasies to their modern day resurrections. What delivers the collective "wow" is the abrupt spatial transition from a tight, aged store to a capacious and sophisticated restaurant/lounge that exudes both modern pizzazz and classical elegance.