This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Few of the restaurants that I have ever enjoyed have their origins quite as geographically widespread as those that underpin the charming Calliope on New York’s Lower East Side.
Moreover, although Calliope opened less than a year ago and its owners, Eric and Ginevra Korsh (pictured below), are still only in their mid 30s, their restaurant has already managed to incorporate two generations of their family.
I was welcomed into Calliope one Saturday morning at 11 am by Grace Korsh as we returned for what was to prove to be our third excellent meal here. This is the service they call their rock’n’roll brunch as the sound system plays music that will make anyone over 50 feel young.
Grace is the Korsh’s six-year-old daughter and she was standing behind the receptionist wearing a brightly striped dress. She swiftly skipped past us to our table and laid the menus out, most professionally. She then returned a couple of minutes later with a large stoppered bottle of water in both hands that she deposited before skipping off again.
Having performed the same role for the rest of the tables, she approached her father in his chef’s whites as he and I chatted round the horseshoe bar at the far end of Calliope and slipped her arm into his. I was not quite sure which was the more proud of the other.
Korsh certainly ought to be proud of all that he and his kitchen brigade are currently serving.
We had eaten dinner there last November when Calliope reverberated with the noise of a packed house (acoustics which have been somewhat softened, Korsh assured me, by the recent addition of absorbent foam under all the tables).
Our table groaned with far too many dishes too as a compulsive New York foodie friend wanted to put the kitchen through its paces. It passed with flying colours via a range of dishes: soothing eggs mayonnaise with celery salt; comforting combinations of beef tongue with a lettuce salad and papardelle with rabbit; a more fiery tripe dish; and a pair of quails roasted with chanterelles.
Lunch was a much calmer affair but distinguished by their home-smoked sable accompanied by sour cream, beetroot and shallots; chicken paillard enlivened by a refreshing potato and fennel salad; and an excellent gâteau Basque.
The star of their breakfast show, other than Grace, was a dish described as a German pancake with lemon and powdered sugar. This large pancake, pale golden in the middle and crisp brown round the edges, was brought to our table bubbling in the heavy, black oval pan in which it had been cooked. It tasted as good as it looked.
What contributed just as much to our enjoyment of these meals are Calliope’s interior and aspect. It occupies a corner site of which the two external walls are made up of floor to ceiling windows that fold back as the temperature outside rises.
As a result, sunlight floods in during the day to reveal fixtures and fittings that once proudly graced a bistro in Europe. The tiled floor; the distressed mirrors along one wall; the bar that would have looked quite at home in a Maigret novel; and the obviously old wooden doors throughout all juxtapose the definitive New York cityscape outside with a very French interior.
And yet what brought all these ingredients together to such delightful effect was what took place 3,000 miles west in California. And as so often is the case with the best restaurants, failure has been the spur to eventual success.
Eric Korsh decided to move to Sebastopol, West Sonoma County, for a breath of fresh air, as he put it, after ten years cooking in New York, and they opened Eloise, a restaurant with lofty ambitions, in 2008. His timing proved to be less accurate than his cooking. ‘We opened just before Lehman Brothers folded and from that moment on it was increasingly brutal. I spent most of my time having to sack staff until there was just me and one waiter left’, he sighed.
Korsh returned to New York where he supported his family by working as a jobbing cook in restaurants around the city while he licked his professional wounds. Then a call came from a friend who wondered whether he was ready to make another foray into the world of independent restaurateurs.
Korsh smiled as he told me that his immediate response had been a resounding negative. But then he saw what was to become Calliope. Over the years it had been a gentlemen’s club and subsequently a bistro.
But far more compellingly, this had once been a bistro whose fixtures and fittings had quite some time ago been shipped directly, and with great care, by an obviously thoughtful former owner from its previous incarnation somewhere in France or Belgium. Calliope, which they named after a north American hummingbird, had found its natural home.
Korsh’s courage the second time round has played a significant part in Calliope’s obvious popularity in this city that, just like London, seems to have fallen in love all over again with French food. In the process they may also have created a restaurant for Grace and her younger sister, Mia, to work in – and not just at Saturday brunch.
Calliope 84 East Fourth Street, New York 10003; tel +1 212 260 8484