In my last post, I explained this exciting project I’m doing with Ralph Lauren Home and some very bold-faced women of New York’s vibrant food and drink scene. The second in this three-part series is about the lovely women behind King restaurant. We spent a rainy afternoon with them, and I honestly could not imagine a cozier place in which to spend it. Here’s my post:
When New York Times food critic Pete Wells wrote his review of King restaurant last June, he began with how a friend, a regular, described the experience: “food on a plate in a room.”
The review was a glowing one, but placing his friend’s succinct summation right up front was Wells’ way of reminding us what matters most about the dining experience. Personally, I’d hasten to add the words “most thoughtful” before “food,” and “understatedly chic” before “plate”. Oh, and after “room” I’d add, “that you wish your home looked like, but you know you’ll never get it right like they did.”
“They” are the three women behind King: chefs Clare de Boer and Jess Shadbolt, and partner Annie Shi, who mans (or wo-mans) the front of house. They were thrilled that Wells got their message loud and clear.
“Dining here should be about the food, first and foremost,” says Clare. “And good conversation. We don’t want anything to interfere with that. That being said, it doesn’t really feel like you’re entertaining until you set the table.”
And on this Fall afternoon, as a tenacious rainstorm pelts outside, the tables inside King’s cozy dining room are receiving some added embellishments for an early Friendsgiving dinner. Bud vases holding white flowers dot the long table next to candles of varying heights, complemented by Ralph Lauren plates with horn-inspired patterned trim in neutral tones.
Clare and Jess met while working in the kitchen of Ruth Rogers’ famed River Café in London. They soon met Annie, a New Yorker who was working in finance at her firm’s London office. The three clicked immediately, especially when they realized their shared dream of opening a restaurant. Various reasons (among them, love, family, both) led them to set their tables in the Big Apple.
“New York has a very vibrant food scene. Within it, we’re striving to bring back the simplicity and seasonality of good food without all the noise,” says Jess. “And that translates to the décor, the wine list, the style, everything.”
Interior designer Jane Gowers chose the neutral palette of white, cream, wicker and pale woods to keep in line with the restaurant’s food-centric ethos. She also happens to be Clare’s mum, so she was on intimate terms with the French-meets-Northern-Italian menu plan from the beginning.
The menu itself changes every day. Mapped out the night before, what is offered depends on a few determining factors—the season, the bounty and the day.
“Different people come in on different days of the week,” explains Clare. “Our core customers dine with us on Mondays, and they’re quite adventurous, so that’s likely when we’d serve ox tongue. The menu is very much based on what we know about who’s coming in, and what we fancy.”
What they’re fancying during this friendly feast are spiced pumpkin marsala soup, slow-cooked pork shoulder with coco beans and braised spinach, sautéed tardivo, and a dandelion green and radicchio salad, which we are encouraged to eat with their fingers.
“We had lots of discussions about whether to set the table with the flatware or not,” recalls Annie. “Ultimately, we decided not to, because when people start with the Panisse [fried chickpea flour finger sticks], we want them to use their hands. This kind of casual interaction carries over to the paper over the tablecloths. We love to see guests doodle on the paper.”
Today’s meal does have a casual air to it, despite the addition of the blooms and that—gasp!—pre-set cutlery. Clare compares the extra touches to hearing a band perform live, while Jess appreciates the spirit of the holiday gathering as she watches her friends bring the food to the table.
“I think there’s a ritualistic part of laying a table for a holiday,” comments Jess, as Annie refills her glass from the bottle Cornaline by Domaine Hauvette. “It’s a real part of the meal, as much as standing around in the kitchen and washing the dishes afterwards is too.”
The dinner conversation flows easily, loaded with laughter and toasts, eventually landing on who’s bringing what to their respective Thanksgiving feasts. The two Brits admit to happily letting their respective hosts take the reins for the day, while the New Yorker describes her Chinese-American family’s twists on the meal.
“My mom always cooks this really simple bok choy that she sautées with ginger and a little garlic,” explains Annie. “It’s so refreshing and easy, and it’s not going to detract from the turkey or any other traditional dishes. On the other hand, my father does always expect that Ocean Spray cranberry jelly that comes in the can.”
After a moment, Jess ventures a guess.
“Is that a dessert?”
As the Americans at the table burst out laughing, it’s probably a safe bet that jelly from a can won’t be appearing on the menu. Not even on Mondays.