The low-key and elegant Octavia's Porch, opened in early December by the very pregnant former Top Chef contestant Nikki Cascone (Season 4, Chicago), is trying to be many things.
With exposed white brick and soft lighting, the atmosphere is innocuous. High ceilings, chandeliers and a view of the sleek copper bar make you want to sit up straight in your banquette and wish you'd run a comb through your hair before setting out. The music, from Air to MGMT, is gauzy and dreamy.
The food brings you back down to earth. The restaurant's "global Jewish" cuisine is ambitious in its wedding of old world tradition with new world flavor, but the melting pot approach can be disorienting. Sweet soy-scallion dipping sauce with beef and veal kreplach—huh? A little context or menu annotation might help.
The restaurant, located a stone's throw from the once mostly Jewish enclave of the Lower East Side, is named for a street in Rome's Jewish ghetto. Recipes reflect the Jewish-Italian heritage of both Cascone and her husband and business partner, with North African (lamb stew with curried lentils and root vegetables) and South American (mushroom, jalapeno and fennel ceviche) influences tossed in.
In the casting of this wide culinary net, some classic Jewish-Italian dishes, like carciofi alla giudia (fried artichokes), are missing. But, hey! There's gefilte fish with radish, lime and fresh horseradish—a combo that makes me want to root for Cascone.
Riffs on classic dishes found at New York delis—like a herby wild mushroom knish with beer mustard and an espresso egg cream for dessert—are playful. While the kitchen isn't kosher, neither pork nor shellfish is on the menu. The complimentary homemade challah with honey-butter makes you wonder if there's a Grandma in the house.
To start, we had the hearty and overly salted potato and escarole soup, chicken liver salad over rye matzoh (so hard it could hurt someone), and a perfectly balanced red quinoa salad with green beans, pumpkin seeds, oranges and balsamic. The brisket on rye—with bland meat and soggy bread—made me feel sorry for any brisket served in this city since Mile End opened. We found relief in the tender and gently spiced lamb stew and the Temperance—a cocktail made with beer, bourbon and ginger ale. Prices are reasonable but no bargain (entrees range from $14 to $22; cocktails $10 to $12).
More than a destination, Octavia's Porch is a neighborhood spot gaining its footing. While Cascone won't be getting the reality show dismissal to "Pack up your knives and go!,"it will be interesting to see whether this experiment indicates a lack of focus or a brave new vision. With her new baby in tow, maybe the 37-year-old Staten Island native will settle in and make a home.