At Northern Spy, Purity on a Plate

Northern Spy Food CompanyMeghan Keneally Northern Spy Food Co.

Northern Spy Food Co., at 511 East 12th Street between Avenues A and B, is a very pure place. The produce is locally grown, the wine is artisanal and even the very simple décor — blue benches lining white walls — “incorporates as much reclaimed and repurposed materials as possible,” according to the restaurant’s website. The meat comes from “the best and most progressive butcher on the East Coast.” Even the name conjures up purity, since a Northern Spy is a New York State heirloom apple.

I was not initially aware of the depth of Northern Spy’s commitment to purity. At lunch the other day, I asked my waiter if the turkey in the turkey sandwich was regular Boar’s Head. He shot me a look of pure disbelief; maybe he thought I was needling him. The turkey came from a farm in Pennsylvania; it had been roasted in-house, and then shaped into a roulade for uniform slicing. And the turkey was, indeed, dense and moist and darker in color than most commercial birds, and made for a beautiful sandwich.

My friend Fred was wary. The last time he had come to Northern Spy his lunch partner had ordered the polenta and baked eggs, and when the egg had come runny she had asked if she could have a better-cooked one. “The chef prefers to cook it that way,” she was told. In short: no. Fred had lived for years in Paris and had never heard a French waiter, or any other kind of waiter, deliver so high-handed a response. He had returned to Northern Spy only because I had asked. But he was wary.

Fred placed his order after me. He ordered the lamb burger, medium well. “The chef,” said our waiter—our very nice, young, bearded waiter—“prefers to make the lamb burger rare to medium rare.”

“Could you ask him to make it medium well?” Fred asked—very politely, for Fred is  an exceptionally gracious person who loves cafes and restaurants.

“I don’t think so,” said our waiter.

SeltzersSamantha Ku Chris Ronis, co-owner of Northern Spy Food Co.

Fred said, “Then I’d like to have the polenta and eggs—but can you make the polenta firm?” Our waiter said that the polenta was cooked in advance and was, as Fred recalled from the previous encounter, on the runny side. Perhaps, Fred suggested, the chef could cook something that he, the chef, would like to cook and also that he, Fred, would like to eat? Perhaps they could confer? “You could,” said our waiter doubtfully. But Fred was, in fact, giving him the needle. Fred ordered the meatball sandwich, which I knew from previous experience was lovely—three big pork meatballs and a light marinara sauce in crunchy Italian bread.

What, then, are we to say of this commitment to purity? Even Fred conceded that John Singer Sargent would have paid no attention to a sitter who asked him to, say, thicken her eyebrow ever so slightly. Northern Spy is a highly esteemed restaurant, and committed to noble food values. If the chef says that the egg and the polenta should be eaten runny, then perhaps that’s how they should be eaten. And nobody should eat a lamb burger, or any other kind of burger, medium well—especially if the meat comes from the best and most progressive butcher for hundreds of miles around. Doesn’t such a chef have the right to insist that we not trample on his values? If you wouldn’t tell a sushi master to salt your toro, why should you be able to tell a serious chef to overcook your meat?

Because, I guess, it’s not a religion. It’s not painting or literature. It’s not even $300 sushi. It’s lunch. And lunch on a sunny day near Avenue B is a delightful social transaction, not a vision of the Absolute. The food may be an end for the chef, but it’s a means for the diners, a very pleasing accompaniment to the sharing of intimacies or anecdotes or just news. I don’t imagine that Fred will return to Northern Spy, though I will. Allow me, however, to give one piece of advice to The Powers That Be: lighten up.

Northern Spy Food Co., 511 East 12th Street, 212-228-5100.