by Meryl Pearlstein
In the heart of New York’s Little Italy, you’ll find a bit of the determined immigrant spirit taking hold in an entirely new manner. Down a few steps through an unmarked door at 149 Mulberry St. sits an über-cool drink emporium with cuisine that’s as exciting as anywhere in Manhattan or Brooklyn.
The brainchild of chef Michael “Kiwi” Camplin, formerly of Boqueria and one of the most charming New Zealanders you’ll ever meet, The Mulberry Project seems almost a throwback to Prohibition days, with a speakeasy setting that’s at the same time lush and welcoming. Black cushion banquettes or stools at the shiny metal bar are the seats in demand to watch the parade of cocktails and little plates that comprise a meal here (as well as the beautiful clientele who have discovered this gem). Charming and knowledgeable Italian and French bartenders skilled in molecular mixology create cocktails from a list of fresh fruit and herbs – you give a hint of the type of base you want (vodka, tequila, gin) and your mood, and they’ll do the rest.
It’s a bit of beverage wizardry, and you might get a watermelon mint take on a vodka gimlet or perhaps a gin version that’s laced with fresh thyme, maraschino cherry syrup and cucumber. Dishes change according to the chef’s whim and what’s freshest. My favorites of the moment: yellowtail crudo with summer peas, soft shell crab with a small lace of lemon jam, short rib sliders tenderized in water and graced with a bit of silky sheep’s milk cheese, and a simple braised octopus with the right hint of balsamic and chili oil.
If you think a Little Italy dessert is only about cannoli or gelato, you’re wrong here. The Mulberry Project’s tasting plate is a must, comprising four miniature versions of the restaurant’s signatures: a chocolate duo that’s both salty and sweet, bread and butter pudding that had me begging for more, a perfect crème brûlée and an apple tarte tatin enlivened with a butterscotch drizzle.
To add to the specialness of this enclave for those “in the know,” there’s an outdoor garden that has a tongue-in-cheek lawn area, spectacular graffiti art, hip music and torchieres should the weather take a chilly turn. The Mulberry Project is open for dinner but offers brunch on the weekends. Reservations absolutely required. The Mulberry Project, 149 Mulberry St., New York, NY 10013, 646-448-4536.
You can click on each photo to enlarge to see dishes from The Mulberry Project restaurant menu.