Determining what to pick from the menu is a little more complicated. The breadth of menu is laudatory. It's at once simple and complex, deriving from multicultural influences. The trick here is to find a dinner line-up that makes sense from a gustation point of view. As menus are meant for sharing, progression is key. It is highly probable that the more guests you have, the more difficult it would be to create a cohesive meal. Nevertheless, there is certainly something for everybody, though ideally not to be consumed all at the same sitting. That goes the same for the array of cocktails.
Compared to Stanton Social, one is less hit immediately with the essence of each dish as the flavors are much more delicate and refined here. Chef Chris Santos has created a distinctive menu that repeatedly takes a known dish and places it on its head. If you're one who likes to anticipate what something is going to taste like, read the menu carefully as the delight is in its departure from the usual co-starring ingredients. Sashimi of tuna and crunchy chorizo is an example. For others who savor the excitement of revelations, just sip your cocktails, sit back and enjoy the show.
The raw bar's Kobe Beef Carpaccio and any of the Jewels on Toast (the whipped ricotta is a favorite) are flavorful but gentle, and good plates to start. Both the Sweet Roasted Tomato and Wild Mushroom Pizzettas are crisp and appetizing, if a bit mild. On the other hand, the mild sweetness and perfect texture of the Lobster Tacos and the crispy multilayered depth of the Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup Dumplings exhibit rare and amazing culinary expertise. Yet again, Chef Chris takes something you can find in an ordinary diner menu (like grilled cheese and tomato soup) and elevates it to legendary status.
Like good music, the indisputable sign of a good pasta sauce lies in ones ability to recall certain notes and flavors weeks after. And just like music, there are more bland and average sauces than there are good ones. Nothing is more disappointing than on a carefully appointed "cheat" day, one is digging on a plate of pasta swimming in a red blob reeking of garlic and canned tomato sauce. But the good ones truly do impress with its depth and finesse; and this is the case both with the Garganelli and the Pan Roasted Mezze Rigatoni. Our server tried to talk us out of ordering two meat-based pasta dishes, afraid that it's redundant and would ruin the experience. This is a gesture we appreciated very much, although we were glad to have been gluttons who didn't listen. The sauces were strikingly distinct enough that each on our table had his own preference. The spices in both are well balanced and harmonious with flavors so symphonic even the low-carb eaters found themselves scooping for more.
For several of us, the Asian Baby Back Rib is the star of the show. It is easy to over-flavor and under flavor rib. But from the outer layer to the inner most piece near the bone, this take on ribs had a flavor gradation that is consistent and seamless. It is, however, remarkably lean, which would make it possibly a bit dry for some. Still, we found it diabolically "finger-licking" good.
We wish we could add a proper review of the dessert menu, but unfortunately the irresistible cocktails and the barrage of flavors during dinner muted the experience of dessert. In the future, we should perhaps work our meals backwards because we've failed in a couple of attempts to fully appreciate the desserts. Sometimes, there just doesn't seem to be too much of a good thing.
Not coincidentally, this is probably the "big idea" in having both both Stanton Social and Beauty & Essex. The experience while dining in one--interesingly enough--makes you also crave for the other. And though we felt obligated to come up with our preferences and personal favorites, strangely it doesn't seem to demand a choice between the two. Neither seems better nor less than the other.
As sister restaurants, Beauty & Essex is the more refined and sophisticated one while Stanton Social has a more accessible and playful character. And while each has its own admirers, both are delightful and merit full appreciation on their own. So if all he has to worry about is a little, friendly sibling rivalry, hunky Chef Chris Santos should be one proud papi.
One amazing evening as we walked out of the restaurant into the store, we spotted David Copperfield waiting outside for his ride. Whether it was he or an illusion, we could never be sure. Still, considering we'd just encountered a performance of culinary wonder, it seemed fitting. For us, Beauty & Essex may very well be Stanton Social's mirror, but there's a word for what it does. Magic.