One if By Land, Two if By Sea


One if By Land
17 Barrow Street
New York, New York 10014

5-second summary:

Price Range–  3-course price fixe $78, chef’s tasting menu $95 (at time of posting)
Ambiance Historic, romantic retreat
Cuisine- New American
Hits- Attentive service, sophisticated desserts, ambiance
Misses- Steak, appetizer/entree execution


Background: What’s in a Name?

If you can remember all the way back to seventh grade history, you’ll probably recall these monolithic lines from Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.”  As the literature goes, the American hero instructed his “friend” to

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.

The restaurant’s name, it would seem, is pure historicity.  One if By Land is, in fact, Aaron Burr’s colonial carriage house, an artfully preserved relic of 1700s New York in the West Village.  It does strike me as incongruous that shameless canoodling and frequent engagements occur in the 18th century equivalent of Burr’s garage (Burr, of vice presidency and duel-resulting-in-the-death-of-rival-Alexander-Hamilton fame), but who am I to judge?

Our Strategy: One if By Cheap, Two if By Trendy

We had a strategy in place, choosing One if By Land as one of our Restaurant Week destinations.  Our thinking was this: One if By Land has a pretty pricey menu, and for the price of dinner, we’d rather try eating with one of New York’s omnipresent “it” chefs.  Everyone eats at OIBL, though; it’s a New York City landmark.  Soooo we figured we’d give it a shot during $35-dinner Restaurant Week to get a deal, try it out, say we’d been there, and then save our money for Thomas Keller or Todd English.  Our strategy proved to be a good one.

That said, I’ve issued my disclaimer.  My experience may or may not be indicative of the restaurant during other time periods, but Rich and I are of the firm opinion that food should be well-prepared no matter what specials are offered.

Deconstructing Decor

We stepped off Barrow Street through anachronistic round double doors framed by a white arch and into a dark wood bar with two inviting fireplaces.  The hostess greeted us warmly, crossing the bar to take our coats and seat us in a rounded, red banquette facing our fellow diners, elaborate electric-candle chandeliers, and a slope-ceilinged room dressed richly in reds.

We found one common theme that applied to the food, decor, and overall ambiance: cheese.  That’s right.  Cheese.  One if By Land is elegant and romantic… with a toe (okay, maybe half of the left foot) over the “cheesy” line.  It’s a little like everyone’s Aunt Nancy, beautifully put-together but still a little tacky and ostentatious.

We expected cliche here, and we weren’t disappointed.  Every Lady and the Tramp detail was dutifully fulfilled: exposed brick (marred by bulky speakers playing Frank Sinatra), heavy oil paintings spotlighted in gilded frames, and a dewy, full, red rose on each table accompanied by a dripping, white taper.  I suppose one could say the place tried too hard; the “candle-lit” ambiance was approximated by flickering electric candles.  It was Textbook Romance 101.

One of the highlights of the evening, though, was a quiet little gem just past the textured glass separating the dining room from the bar, unobtrusively located in a niche between the restrooms and a staircase.  Framed with considerably less splendor than the dining room’s huge oil and acrylic portraits was an 1822 shipping document bearing the signature of the murdered Alexander Hamilton ironically situated next to a 1784 letter penned by Aaron Burr.  In a cruel twist of fate that forever links these two mortal enemies in the collective consciousness  nearly 200 years after their feud, they hang side by side in what was once Burr’s own property.  (I’m sure he’d be thrilled.)  On the adjacent wall, encased in glass, was an illustration of Paul Revere and a scrap of paper featuring his cursive scrawl.  We spent several minutes examining the artifacts, and the museum-like moment almost made the trip downtown worthwhile.

Service, Cocktails, and Appetizers

On the plus side, the service was keenly watchful; trained eyes scanned our table to refill water glasses, replace silverware, and offer more bread just as the last crumb fell on the butter plate.  Our very attentive waiter inquired about our post-dining plans (we were seeing a show?) to be certain our food was properly timed and made sure each course was “to our liking.”

My Charles de Fere blanc de blanc brut and Rich’s Leff beer arrived promptly and perfectly chilled. Rich thought his beer was a little flat, but my bubbly was lovely.  The Stella Artois he ordered thereafter were carbonated more to his satisfaction.  We were then offered some humdrum breads: a multi-grain roll or slices of sourdough and sesame loaf.  Perhaps we might have appreciated the bread more if it were served warm.

Our first course arrived almost immediately.  I had a butternut squash soup with fennel foam and huckleberries.  It wasn’t quite hot, and the natural flavors were a bit lost.  Like the squash soup at One, there was an overwhelming taste of cream that drowned out any semblance of the vegetable’s natural sweetness.  The foam didn’t really taste like fennel, and the presentation was a little sloppy- with the foam scattered off to the side like an afterthought.  The dish’s saving grace was the smattering of huckleberries at the bottom, which added texture and complementary flavor.

Rich ordered a saffron orzo with duck confit and a pea shoot salad.  I didn’t get a chance to taste it, which he attributes to the small portion.  He indicated that it was flavorful, with the duck confit tasting “like a regular sausage” and the orzo “very creamy” and tasting strongly of cheese.

The Entree Debacle

We waited a little while for our entrees, and they were -unfortunately- the biggest disappointment of the evening.  We both ordered grilled bavette steak with sweet potato gratin and pearl onions.  Again, the presentation looked hasty-handed, most specifically in the roughly hewn meat fanned out on the plate.  Our onions were charming- perfect in temperature, slightly caramelized on the outside, with beautiful bite and a sprinkle of salt for balance.  The gratin was also nice and seemed to have thin shavings of fennel.  The combination of fennel, sweet potato, a delicate hint of cinnamon, and salt made for a well-balanced flavor combination; it was one of the only times the simple foods were allowed to shine and reveal their own unadulterated flavors.

The bavette, also known as flap steak, is a small short loin cut comparable to hanger or flank steak.  Given the muscular cut of beef, we were prepared to exchange cut-through-it-with-a-butter-knife-ness for the intense, meaty flavor characteristic of such steaks.  Unfortunately, we got neither flavor nor texture.  The meat was poorly seasoned, and -much like my squash soup- didn’t really even retain the natural flavors (in this case, of the meat).  To boot, the steaks were tough and chewy.  Prepared with time and love, these tougher cuts can be a thing of beauty (see Harold Dieterle and the precendent-setting hanger steak).  OIBL’s steaks were not prepared with time and love.  They were beautifully cooked to medium-rare (me) and rare (Rich), seared quickly over intense heat and sliced across the grain, but they had not been lovingly prepared -marinated and tenderized- to effect the amazing culinary acrobatics necessary to transform a bavette into a beaute.  Rich, who finishes everything (often including some of mine), left half of the steak on his plate.

Our very-attentive waiter noted the abundance of food sitting in front of my boyfriend, who is -generally speaking- a big, hungry-looking guy.  He swarmed in, heard Rich’s feedback, and promptly offered “another cut of meat.”  We thanked him but weren’t interested.

“We understand that it’s Restaurant week,” I said, perhaps letting the chef off too easily.  “We didn’t expect…”

“Right,” he agreed with all-American, bread-and-butter kindness.  “We’re not going to put a filet on the menu during Restaurant Week.”


We were prepared to walk away disappointed with New York’s traditional culinary  love nest… and then came the third course.  We ordered the chocolate peanut butter cup: a delightful, dense , and moist chocolate cake topped with peanuts and candied ginger and beautifully presented on a smudge of caramel so buttery it could only be the fresh, homemade kind.  The “peanut butter cup,” as such, was deconstructed by flavor, a cake tenderly crusted on the outside with the texture of a British pudding on the inside, paired with a salted caramel ice cream… that… knocked… the… ball… out… of… the… park.  (I could nearly hear Michael Serling stand-up-shouting, “Theeeee Yankees win!”)  The salt.  The caramel.  Words fail.

Our waiter also brought a complimentary dessert to  mitigate the effects of bad steak.  In this dish, sweet, perfectly ripe passionfruit was topped with cheesecake and mango sorbet and accompanied by a long, finger-shaped honey tuile (the dessert menu is pretty big on tuiles).  The star of the plate was a smudge of candied basil-mint that was so fresh and so clean in taste compared to our entrees.

While most items on the menu seem understated, young pastry chef Matthew O’Haver went well above and beyond menu expectations to execute desserts with strong, simple natural flavors.  He let the ingredients be themselves, without -in layman’s terms- messing with them too much.  This is where the philosophical schism between chef and pastry chef is painfully obvious.

In fairness, I don’t want to disparage Executive Chef Sam Freund; clearly, there is conceptual alignment on the menu.  However, the execution (and presentation, for that matter) of entrees and dessert were like night and day.  It was almost as if the two courses were served from different kitchens… different restaurants, so gaping was the distance between them.

In short, while OIBL is a landmark, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. O’Haver moved on to bigger and better things.

Wrapping Up: No Doggie Bag, Please

As we exited, the hostess apologized again for our dissatisfaction with the steak, an attentive touch we appreciated.  The background crooning of Old Blue Eyes had given way to a live pianist playing soft, adult contemporary music in the bar (cheese factor!).  Walking out, we agreed that we’d had the right strategy walking in.  I’m glad we tried One if By Land, but now that we have the notch in our belt, I think it’s best left to tourists and the next generation of first-timers.

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