Restaurant Review: Raf’s Conjures Swirling Abundance from a Wood-Fired Oven

Early this year, the owners of the Musket Room, on Elizabeth Street, opened a second restaurant called Raf’s about one block north. Mary Attea is the chef at both, and intelligent, well-constructed food is the rule, but the cooking is so different it’s often hard to believe the same person is in charge.

At the Musket Room, ingredients and sauces are neatly arranged on the plate, like painting or sculpture. Plenty of white space is left around the food — that signifier of the chef’s touch since the dawn of nouvelle cuisine. Ms. Attea shapes oil-poached potatoes, smoked mussels and dressed lettuces into a low ridge, then decorates it with curls of jamón Ibérico and yellow dots of saffron aioli. (Great dish, by the way.)

Stewed rabbit and fava-bean pesto make a sauce for mafaldine.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times
At the far end of the dining room is a vintage bread oven that does most of the cooking.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

At Raf’s, the food goes wherever it wants. It fills up, sprawls across and towers over plates that usually end up looking half a size too small. Servings are finished with shaved and grated cheese, toasted bread crumbs and browned hazelnuts that look as if they had just poured from the sky in a freakish indoor storm. Pasta drips with sauce. Red-wine vinegar agrodolce sloshes around a roasted slab of pork collar half-buried under a small charred forest of broccoli rabe.

You might wonder what happened between the tidy designs at Musket Room and the swirling abundance of Raf’s. The answer seems to be the bread oven built into Raf’s back wall, where almost everything is cooked.

Raf’s is one of a small pack of local restaurants led by women who use wood ovens to explore Mediterranean cuisine.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

Raf’s address, just north of Houston Street, was previously occupied by two Italian bakeries. Angie’s, the first, built the brick ovens in 1935. Later, Parisi Bakery, nearby on Mott Street, took over the lease and the ovens. Parisi bread was trucked each morning from Elizabeth Street to delis, bodegas and restaurants around the city. Hooni Kim’s bulgogi sliders at Danji sat on par-baked Parisi buns. Ratha Chau built the Cambodian sandwiches at Num Pang inside split Parisi baguettes. A Parisi semolina roll with sesame seeds was the foundation of the meatball Parm hero at Parm.

If the history didn’t sway Ms. Attea and her partners, Con Ed made sure she got the message. After opening in March, Raf’s waited three months before the company turned on the gas. By that time, the restaurant’s whole persona revolved around cooking with wood fire.

It’s hard to imagine that the regulars, already a large and loyal group, will let Ms. Attea take the leeks off the menu. Infiltrated with smoke, they are tender and savory under handfuls of stracciatella, hazelnuts and chopped green herbs in vinaigrette.

Leeks vinaigrette are warmed in the oven, then dressed with hazelnuts and an herb vinaigrette.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

Raf’s brick-oven chicken is probably here to stay, too. It’s rubbed with rosemary and fennel pollen; caramelized fennel bulbs arranged around the chicken carry the flavor forward. There’s an Italian salsa verde on the chicken and an herb salad over everything. A lot is happening on this plate, so much so that at first you might not see the slabs of sourdough bread at the bottom of the skillet. By the time you’ve noticed, they’ll be dripping with chicken juices and olive oil.

A strong gust from the Mediterranean moves through dishes like these, along with some California breezes. (The chicken is a distant cousin of the one Zuni Café has roasted in its brick oven and served with bread salad since 1987.) Ms. Attea joins a growing pack of female chefs, including Missy Robbins, Melissa Rodriguez, Hillary Sterling and Ayesha Nurdjaja who find wood-burning ovens useful for bringing out the more direct and elemental flavors of Mediterranean cuisine.

The chilled steak tartare is chopped by hand.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

The generosity of Raf’s hearth-roasted dishes spills over into the pastas, like the long ruffled bands of mafaldine with stewed rabbit and bright-green early favas, all splashing around in a loose fava pesto and a drift of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. There is nothing stingy about the dollop of whipped lardo that slides into the shells of six escargots, melting and mingling with parsley and garlic into a warm and fragrant sauce. Even the chilled, hand-chopped beef tartare is lavishly dressed with grated cheese, toasted bread crumbs and, just to be safe, a few lashings of olive oil.

And of course, there is bread. This is the purview of Camari Mick, pastry chef, baker and an owner. You can have a mixed basket combining rustic sourdough, salt-flecked focaccia and shiny round milk buns. These come to the table with hand-churned butter from the Loire on one side of a small dish; the other side will be filled with grass-green Sicilian olive oil from the winemaking estate of Arianna Occhipinti.

Breads are the purview of Camari Mick, the baker and pastry chef.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

The star of the bread lineup, though, is the chewy and flavorful deep-dish sfincione, an ancestor of Sicilian pizza baked in a generously oiled hot skillet and scattered with bread crumbs and anchovies.

Ms. Mick handles the short list of desserts as well. Her elegantly narrow sliver of torte plays a dark-chocolate filling against a darker chocolate glaze. More surprisingly, she has finally figured out what to do with white chocolate: It is caramelized and made into a dense pudding that looks a bit like a cappuccino, and tastes more like one than whatever it is white chocolate usually tastes like.

She is also in charge of the pastries that make up most of the menu on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when Raf’s resembles an urban European cafe from another century. The front room is intimate, with a terrazzo-tiled floor and pink-marble bar. The back dining area is slightly larger, with framed mirrors lining the walls and a ceiling fresco of roiling clouds in a sky out of Fragonard. The kitchen is at the end of the room, where cooks slide pans in and out of the mouth of the oven in a gleaming wall of white tile.

The tables are hip-by-hip, set with linens, a little closer together and a little smaller than you might wish, particularly as the night gathers momentum and the noise kicks up and the servers try to impose order on the bread baskets and salad bowls and oval platters of roasted dorade. They almost succeed, and anyway, neatness is beside the point.

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