County, a remarkable little restaurant in the Flatiron District, felt immediately like home to me. Not my actual home, the place that endlessly needs tidying up, but my ideal imaginary home, elegant and comfortable, with food that I would be happy to eat every day (and someone else to cook it).
Shy of a year old, County is run by Deborah Polo, for whom the restaurant has been a labor of love. Although she has had different careers, from chocolatier and pastry chef to market researcher, she most recently made the jump from stay-at-home mother to restaurateur.
The name County denoted a sort of timeless, idyllic image of Americana for Polo, of roast chicken and succotash, and all the comfort it implies. It’s New American cuisine but with global influences. “I originally thought it would be local yet global,” she said. “We live in New York, we’re a city of immigrants.” Polo herself grew up in the Philippines until she was 12; the executive chef, Jon Feshan, is from Iran.
The block is home to “serious restaurants,” Polo said, from Barnounia, Il Mulino, and L’Express, to Gramercy Tavern. “[They] have all been very gracious in offering their help and support … I feel like we’re the engine that could,” she said, “from that children’s book … ‘I think I can, I think I can.'”
“Gramercy sends their overflow here,” she told me, which speaks volumes about County. It exudes warmth and hospitality, a reflection as much of Polo’s personality—she is a constant presence at the front of the house to welcome diners—as of the beautiful design.
County is both rustic—with walls and ceilings of deep chocolate brown wood, reclaimed from old barns in upstate New York—and modern, with a stainless steel bar and mercury glass pendant lighting.
The result, though elegant, doesn’t detract from the comfortable vibe. “I wanted to have a place I could go, feel comfortable, that was nice but not too fussy. … One of my regulars said, ‘I love it because I can come in my sweats and it’s cool.'”
“To me part of it is building community. I think people are hungry for that, especially in a city like New York City. It can feel something so anonymous,” Polo said.
Most of the time, jazz from the Great American Songbook is on the playlist, with lounge music on the weekends.
An Early Start
When County’s executive chef Jon Feshan was young, he visited his father’s catering hall kitchen in Tehran, Iran. The catering hall and restaurant was massive, a five-story building, with 3,000 seats. He was so excited by the sight of the chefs working there—with their white jackets, their tall hats, the efficiency of their movements—he thought, he had to learn their craft. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I was really impressed and inspired.”
When he approached the chef, a tall man from Austria, he was told, “I don’t care whose son you are, [that] your dad’s the boss or whatever. I’m going to have you peel potatoes and onions,” Feshan recalls. “No problem,” he answered. He almost cut off part of his finger cutting eggplant, but he was hooked.
“I went back again and again, to the point that my dad stopped me, because I was about to drop out of school,” he said. He was 11 or 12 at the time.
It wasn’t until 1997, after he had left Iran and moved to the United States, that cooking called out to him again. After some time in Los Angeles, he moved to New York City, working for David Burke, and then for Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen as a sous chef. Working for Vongerichten was one of the best work experiences he had. “You have to forget about everything you know, you have to relearn everything. He taught me you can make food out of everything—out of everything,” Feshan said.
The menu at County changes seasonally—and that doesn’t mean only four times a year. Feshan is keen on working with ingredients at their prime.
“If it’s not in season I cannot use it because it’s not going to look the same, it’s not going to taste the same,” said Feshan.
“If I let him, he’d change it every other day,” quipped Polo.
When I visited County recently, looking at the salads alone, I saw apples, Bibb lettuce, fennel, and kale.
As much as possible, condiments and pickles are made in-house.
One popular starter—a must—is the homemade ricotta and honey, served with grilled slices of bread ($10). It probably doesn’t get simpler than this but quality ingredients make all the difference, from the local honey, which chef Feshan buys at the Union Square Greenmarket to the freshly made ricotta, smooth, creamy, without any trace of graininess. The ricotta is accompanied by a touch of delicate Arbequina olive oil, mint, and chili flakes. As tempting as it is, don’t fill up on this; there’s more to come.
Feshan gets a heads-up from his fish purveyors at Gotham Seafood about what fish are coming in. The black cod on my plate is about as fresh as it come; it’s excellent. Part of its deliciousness lies in its architecture and how it gets you to play hide-and-seek with the ingredients. One bite gets you fish and sweet onion purée, and another might get you earthy roasted beets, cauliflower, and pistachio nuts. The different and possible permutations keep you interested.
I start to think that I’m probably going off the deep end, thinking I’m playing childhood games with my dinner. But when I spoke later to Feshan, I realized part of his intention is to make sure diners don’t get bored.
“The idea is that is if you try something, there’s always a little surprise in it,” he said.
That might throw you off if you’re expecting something else, or even if you’re not expecting anything, in the case of our staff photographer, who unsuspectingly bit into the salad of Bibb lettuce, apples, and spiced walnuts without reading the menu first ($16). And boy, were those walnuts spicy!
The short ribs, which are marinated overnight in red wine, and slowly braised for eight hours, are then finished in a reduction of their own braising liquid ($20). They’re tender, with all the depth and warmth of red wine, perfect for winter, but the surprise lies in their accompaniment.
Traditionalists will expect a heaping serving of mashed potatoes or polenta, which is perfect to send you into a long, deep hibernation. But here, at the moment anyway, it comes with a maple celery root purée, and a parsley citrus salad. Rather than pile heavy starches on, the idea is to cut the fat—both to balance flavor, but also to offer something healthier.
“The philosophy of the food is that it’s so full of flavors, and it’s clean, and it’s good for you, that you’re not eating more for the taste,” Polo said. “It’s nice to feel satiated by the flavors and texture of the food but you don’t have to eat more. If you have something really good, you’re not craving junky things, but it needs to be flavorful and clean from that standpoint.”
Feshan makes use of fruit- or vegetable-based purées, rather than creams, chicken stock, or reductions in the vast majority of dishes. “I just try to make it as healthy as possible. Sometimes I cannot change it. I cannot get the fat out of it, or I cannot say I can make ricotta out of air; it’s not going to happen. I try to make it as healthy as possible.”
Healthy it is, but full of flavors as well, whose sometimes unusual combinations truly do make you slow down and linger.
An ethos of enjoying the present here and now is alive and well at County. “My Zen teacher says you have to meet people where they’re at, to be with what is. I think it’s so much of what we all struggle with. People obsess over what they wish things were,” said Polo, “This is what it is. This is what it is for today. This is what the market has today. Let’s see if we can find something wonderful and creative to do with that.”
34 E. 20th Street (between Park and Broadway)
Monday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Tuesday & Wednesday 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
Thursday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.
Sunday 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.