The guy on the bar stool to my right turns to me. “I love new restaurants,” he says, “when there are as many staff running around as there are people dining, and they’re all really happy.” We’re dining in the bar room at Loring Place, chef Dan Kluger’s new restaurant. While hyperbolic, the statement is accurate in spirit: Clad in sharp denim aprons, servers seem to swarm, eager to please. No one more so than the chef himself. During each of my visits, Kluger was frequently out in the dining and bar rooms chatting with guests, beaming a radiant smile. We can assume that he—like everyone else—was just happy his restaurant was finally open.
We last saw Kluger at ABC Kitchen and ABC Cocina, the Jean-Georges Vongerichten spots where he became known for Greenmarket produce-driven cooking. He’d gained a loyal following by the time he departed in June 2014 to open his own place. Anticipation grew... and then dropped off, as months and then years went by with no word. Two and a half years passed.
Now, finally, his first solo venture is open. Kluger is cooking like he’s trying to make up for lost time, producing bright, bold flavors that incorporate influences from his previous stints: hot chili peppers, likely a remnant from ABC Cocina; Indian-inflected spices, no doubt carried over from his time under Floyd Cardoz at Tabla; a hint of Asian, possibly from Vongerichten’s influence.
Diners who loved what Kluger did at ABC Kitchen will thrill to his new spot. Here, too, vegetables are the star; the best dishes are those that provide flashbacks to his previous strengths—that is, small plates of local, seasonal produce. Kluger knows his way around the Greenmarket, and it shows in dishes like wood-grilled broccoli with kohlrabi, pistachios and mint; leeks and pears with candied walnuts; or pieces of butternut squash, cut into chunks, tempura-fried and served with a lemony Parmesan sauce.
I can’t wait to return and order the rich baked ricotta topped with kabocha squash, sweetened with caramelized fennel and cut with tart vinegar. Follow it with the Brussels sprouts pizza: mild jalapenos mixed with Brussels sprout leaves piled atop a bed of melted aged cheddar, with garlic adding tang. It seems to be one of the most popular dishes, and rightfully so.
Loring Place is milling wheat in-house and using the resulting flour in its breads, pasta and pizza. Those pizza crusts, with their deep, nutty flavor and perfect chew, are transcendent. During my visits, the kitchen was experimenting with toppings, the options having changed each time I returned. One with smoky bacon and sweet dates anchoring a flurry of radicchio and fennel atop mozzarella—kind of an advanced devils on horseback, on a crust—seemed like a keeper.
The kitchen does still have some things to work on, though. Kluger looks to caramelized fennel and various hot peppers too often. Sometimes there was merely an ingredient too many, distracting from what was otherwise a lovely dish. And all I’ll say about the main courses and pastas is to skip them entirely; instead, fashion a meal out of several of the small plates and a pizza or two.
But don’t miss dessert. The two most eye-catching appeal to childhood nostalgia: the Blizzard—a sundae of housemade vanilla ice cream topped with candied Meyer lemon, Martin’s pretzels (even desserts can’t escape the Greenmarket treatment), fudge cookie bits and toffee-walnut sauce—and the Hostess Cupcake, which is exactly what you’d expect. Both are good. Even better is the monkey bread, surprisingly light in texture, topped with a crisp sugar crust and soaking in cranberry-studded caramel sauce.
Above all, it’s exciting food; the chef is continuing to experiment, though maybe a few too many of those experiments are making it out of the kitchen. And lest I sound too critical about the current flaws, let me say this: I ended up making more visits to Loring Place than needed for “research purposes.” This was partly because the menu changed weekly and I wanted to try as many dishes as possible, and partly because I genuinely liked the place. I look forward to returning often, and ultimately, that’s the highest compliment a diner can offer.
21 W. 8th St.. 212.388.1831
Small plates, $10-17; pastas, $16-$18; large plates, $19-$32; desserts, $11-$14
Dinner, Mon.-Thur., 5:30-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11pm; Sun., 5:30-9:45pm
Originally published in the March issue of Manhattan