Beauty & Essex

I just had my mind blown after my birthday dinner at Beauty & Essex!  It was quite possibly the most fun dining experience I've had in a long time!

Beauty & Essex is, as the name suggests, beautiful and located on Essex Street in the Lower East Side. It is one of two restaurants by Executive Chef Chris Santos, also known as the lovable tattooed judge on Chopped.  The concept of both Beauty & Essex and The Stanton Social (his other restaurant in the same neighborhood) is to have little plates for sharing: tapas, but without the pigs ears and with a whole lotta fancy.

Why is Beauty & Essex beautiful?  The restaurant will puzzle you, surprise you, and take your breath away, quite literally.  Its marquee is a dingy, falling-apart sign that looks like the covering fell off the neon letters, a leftover from the wild days of New York in the 80s.  I wouldn't be surprised if they intentionally made the ampersand dangle at an angle.  The vestibule of the restaurant is...a pawn shop!  There are a couple of glass cases with glittery jewels, plastic figurines, and odd pairs of shoes; guitars cover the back wall.  A hostess sits behind an old fashioned cash register and directs you to the discreet door, where you enter...

...BAM, sexiness.  Crystal chandeliers, mirrored surfaces, dark and smoky ambiance.  We were seated underneath a giant skylight, which provided great sunlight on a nice spring day.  My friends and I sipped cocktails and noshed on the small plates until the light above us dimmed into nighttime.

Our waitress was very attentive and friendly, and for an odd table of 7 people, she explained how we could custom-order the small plates (that generally serve 2-3 people) to have up to 7 portions.  We first got an amuse bouche of beet chutney over small individual rounds of papadum.  They were tiny and adorable and just enough to properly whet the appetite.

As for the rest of the meal, I'll let Alex's sexy photographs do most of the talking.  I do want to mention, though, a few stellar dishes of the night.  The first one that still clings to my tastebuds was the chipotle grilled shrimp.  The long plate was laden with giant shrimp almost the size of a handball, coiled up coyly and heaped with a corn relish.  These shrimp were divine: the meat was succulent and sweet and the chipotle spice rub on the outside and towards the tail meat was smoky.  After my shrimp was gone, I was eyeing my companions' plates to see if I could sneak another shrimp from them.

Another unexpectedly good dish was the "General Tso's" monkfish.  The monkfish were cut into small nibblets, fried, and lightly doused in a sweet and spicy (I guess General Tso-style) sauce.  They were so addictive and their meat, so sweet.  Aaaargh, it's almost torturous to reminisce.

Alex and I were big fans of the grilled cheese tomato soup dumpling.  Served on a deep Chinese soup spoon, of which I have many in my house, this petite dumpling swims in a pool of tomato soup.  One bite of the just-warm dumpling causes the cheese to ooooooze into your mouth and mingle with the tomato soup.  It was a heavenly shooter, though I wish it were a bit more substantial!  It also reminded me very much of the show that just ended, The Taste, where the judges blind-tasted a single bite of a contestant's food (I also developed a love/hate relationship with that show).

Finally, we had some delicious desserts to top up our already-full bellies.  Alex had (of course he would) the peanut butter & jelly creme brulee.  How fascinating it turned out to be!  He called it "weird, but in a good way."  The crackly sugar shell gave way to a custard that was overwhelmingly peanut buttery, and not just any peanut butter, but a very smoky-tasting one.  The bottom layer concealed the jelly component.  One of my girlfriends had the butterscotch pot de creme (a Mason jar full of cream...drooooool) with whimsical and clever spoons made of tuile cookie so you could scoop up a mouthful of creme and get the crunch and substance of the cookie.  Amazing!

And so we ended our dinner on a happy note (except while paying the bill, though, which was kind of...astronomical for us), but I was a million percent sated and pretty much floating on Cloud Nine, surrounded by such great friends and having just consumed an amazing meal.