My ears perked up when I first heard of a swanky restaurant with a pawn shop as its entrance. Did I have to buy something first? Was there a secret password to enter this 10,000-square-foot lounge and restaurant, sister to The Stanton Social? My friend, Ariele and I ventured to Beauty & Essex in the Lower East Side to explore what lay behind the large door of an unassuming pawn shop. The heavy door slowly opened and in a split second, we were transported out of the LES and into a sleek and stylist, dimly lit foyer with up-beat house music bumping away. To our right of us, a spiral staircase, complete with a glitzy, 17-foot-tall chandelier, leading to the luxurious second floor lounge; to the left of us, a stairway leading to the much-talked-about women’s washroom, serving more as a champagne (free!) sipping room rather than an actual restroom. The men, unfortunately, are not lucky enough to have the same.
We were escorted past the bar area and into the spacious, equally lavish formal dining room equipped with wall-to-wall tables, soaring ceilings and attention-catching servers, the women in body-hugging violet mini dresses. Right away, we ordered the Masterly Touch and Smoked Opal upon the recommendation of our host. The extensive tapas style menu really has something for everyone and they are very accommodating to a vegetarian palette. After much contemplation, we narrowed it down to the four plates that we hoped would please as much as the mood-setting décor. We started with the complementary Beet Chutney, served on two mini tortilla chips that tasted like Indian papad. The colorful, bite-sized tasty teasers left us craving more. Our drinks arrived with our Whipped Ricotta “Jewel Toasts”. Potent at first sip, Ariele’s Masterly Touch lived up to our server’s advice: it was indeed the strongest drink on the menu. It was like getting two drinks in one; we could barely taste anything past the alcohol. My glass of Smoked Opal, on the other hand, rimmed with a smoked salt, was spicy and a little tangy, creating a rather refreshing combination. The creative set of three soft and chewy crostinis, with fresh whipped ricotta, nectarines, honey, basil, and chile, made for a few subtle flavors. The sweet and savory flavors were rounded out by the juiciness of the nectarines, providing a bite to the smooth ricotta and basil. Initially, we did not come with high hopes for the food but thus far, we were happy to admit that we had made false assumptions.
Next, we had the Pizzetta, Kale & Apple Salad and Spaghettini. The Sweet Roasted Tomato Pizzetta, topped with black olives, goat cheese and roasted garlic oil, was the quintessential crispy flatbread. The tomatoes stole the show, adding bursts of bright, sweet flavors without a soggy texture.
The Kale & Apple Salad, mixed with apple cider vinaigrette, candied pecans, shaved goat cheese, minus the pancetta, boasted a ton of potential. However, it was missing a salty component to balance the slight bitterness of the kale and the sweetness of the apples and candied pecans. The disappointing vegetarian version was clearly lacking the presence of the pancetta. This could have been the dish of the night had the chef figured out a way to fully complete the dish.
The final main dish, the Spaghettini, with zucchini, lemon, parsley pesto, parmigiano, and a sunny-side up egg, was my hands-down favorite of the night. I am sucker for a great spaghetti dish (like the ones from L’Artusi and Scarpetta) and this one was an instant addition to my list at first bite. This goes to show that chef, Chris Santos is not afraid to be bold and really make a statement with intense flavors. The zesty combination of aromatic ingredients made me want to lick my plate. Nonetheless, this dish is not for everyone. Although she appreciated the flavors, Ariele found the sauce to be a bit too over-powering.
Pleasantly full, we had just enough space to split the Molten Chocolate Bread Pudding with a generous scoop of hazelnut ice-cream on top. Rich, warm and delicately nutty, it was everything we had hoped without being too mushy.
Beauty & Essex is not the place to have a nice, quiet dinner with lots of life-altering conversation. However, if you are looking for an enjoyable night out with friends, a fun date or even a great place for drinks and shared eats, this is the perfect place. Both Ariele and I are anxious to return and try many of the other options on the extensive menu and perhaps even get a glass of champagne in the ladies room!
Recap: Hip, trendy and modern atmosphere; fantastic décor; tends to get loud; overall service is not too warm; strong drinks (free champagne in the ladies room); tasty small plates; very vegetarian friendly; reservations needed/highly recommended
Food Tally: 2 cocktails, $13; Whipped Ricotta “Jewel Toasts”, $10; Sweet Roasted Tomato Pizzetta, $14; Kale & Apple Salad, $12; Spaghettini, $18; Molten Chocolate Bread Pudding, $11. Total (w/tax) = $99.08
Address: 146 Essex Street, between Stanton and Rivington Street, NYC; www.beautyandessex.com