How is it that a dish can capture the feeling of spring so vividly? Sugar snap peas—sliced perpendicularly into small rings—are tossed with mint, Thai basil, and bits of sliced fennel, with a hint of raw grassiness still lingering. The vegetables’ true flavors emanate forth; save for a drizzle of shallot vinaigrette on the plate, they are practically untamed, unvarnished.
Verdant gardens and sunny skies await, they seem to say.
This sugar snap peas dish ($16) exemplifies the kind of simple preparation found at Villanelle, a newly opened restaurant a few blocks away from Union Square. Executive chef Nick Licata goes to the Union Square Greenmarket four times a week to procure the latest seasonal goods, then experiments to find “the most simple way that represents the ingredient,” he said. The vegetable is the starting point. Then, Licata and his team of chefs determine what pairs well with it.
“Oftentimes, you go someplace and they do so much to the ingredient, you lose the soul,” said Licata, who previously worked at Degustation and Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar. His philosophy is that high-quality produce speaks for itself, so if you manipulate it substantially, it had better be for a good reason.
A dish of Brussels sprouts ($17) is thus presented with its leaves peeled off and prepared as crunchy bits of barely cooked, pure vegetal goodness, peppered with occasional hits of umami in the form of grated fresh garlic. Cubes of toasted rye bread and cheddar provide extra texture, but otherwise, you can savor the flavors of the vegetable itself—and when was the last time you got to eat Brussels sprouts like that?
Even in a dish with meat, the greens steal the show. Roasted chicken, with a paper-thin layer of crispy skin ($28), is paired with a savory-sweet sauce made with the remaining chicken parts, such as the gelatin-rich feet. The sauce, which tasted a bit like miso, gave an extra boost of saltiness. But the most intriguing part was the mound of green garbanzo and fava beans, rendered soft like grains of rice, and mixed with a green, meatless ragù of sorts: barley, spinach, and the tops of green garlic melding into a creamy consistency. The contrast between its vibrant green color and the unexpected cheesy flavor made for a fun surprise.
The ode to earth’s bounty extends to the restaurant’s name itself. A villanelle is an old form of Italian poetry sung by countryside troupes, usually in performances for city nobility. First-time restaurant owner Catherine Manning thought the name was fitting for an establishment that brought the produce of local farms to diners in New York City. At the same time, “we also wanted to nod to the literary roots of Greenwich Village where we are located,” Manning said, in an email.
In a black bass dish ($26), it is the green tomatillos and their ability to deliver tang that is celebrated. The tomatoes, almost mouth-puckering tart, are paired with bright lemony tones—coming from a broth that incorporates lemon thyme. The herb is a perennial plant that grows practically everywhere in New York, Licata explained. The acidity in both elements deliver intensity to the fish and the accompanying couscous cooked in saffron, which are both mildly seasoned.
And mustard greens, a little bitter, a little sharp, help to cut through a hearty combination: grilled beef, drizzled with a moreish meat jus made by simmering veal bones and chicken parts; and a rich polenta cooked in milk and cream ($34).
Dessert is still rooted in vegetables. A parsnip is first baked, then braised in butter and served with a pool of white chocolate and crispy parsnip skin ($12). Flavors that I had never associated with parsnip came forth as I took bites: not only pleasantly sweet, but with an almost floral and herbal quality. The dish completely transformed the parsnip into an ingredient with new possibilities.
At the restaurant’s gorgeous marble-top bar, situated right in the middle of the airy dining room, guests can sample cocktails made with farmers market produce and housemade bitters, tinctures, and syrups. The O Sweet Spontaneous is a fruity concoction made with strawberry-rhubarb, vodka, and Lillet Rose wine, while the Mad Girl’s Love Song blends rum, Batavia Arrack, and Combier liqueur (all $15).
15 E. 12th St. (between University Place & Fifth Avenue)
Monday–Thursday 5:30 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
Friday & Saturday 5:30 p.m.–11:30 p.m.