Run, don’t walk, to Chalk Point Kitchen, for boy can Joe Isidori cook. What is most remarkable about the Michelin-starred executive chef is his perfect fluency in ingredients normally a world apart. The way he pairs Maine mussels and kimchi, for example, makes it seems as if they were made for each other.
Owner Matt Levine and executive chef Joe Isidori (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Sometimes chefs attempt to marry ingredients from distant cultures with muddled results, but not Isidori. If his knack seems innate, it almost is. He is a New Yorker born and raised, and from about 8 years old on, honed his palate eating across our fair boroughs.
“On my days off with my father, I was eating in every ethnic market I could get my hands on,” he said. “My fondest memory is, every Tuesday, my father would close his restaurant—that was our day off—we’d go down to Chinatown and feast.”
At Chalk Point Kitchen, which opened four months ago, my waiter told me about a popular dish, the Bar Harbor Maine mussels in a kimchi broth, with house-smoked bacon ($18/$24). He said he’d seen diners sip the broth right out of the bowl; one even asked for a straw. I was skeptical at first, especially about the kimchi addition. I thought it might have been a gratuitous touch, a nod to Korean flavors, and potentially one that might not work.
O, me of little faith, for one taste of the broth alone, and I almost fell through the floor. If you love mussels as I do, you’ll find that Isidori does something rather magical to these beauties. The broth makes use not only just of kimchi (made in house), but also other ingredients like clam juice and lemongrass, softened with a touch of cream. None of the ingredients vie for the starring role, but rather each plays its own part beautifully to make a cohesive whole.
I love mussels not only for their taste of the sea and their plumpness, but also because they evoke happy memories of friends and family talking over bowls of moules-frites. But never had any other dish with mussels unlocked these deep recesses of my memories before.
I didn’t ask for a straw, but did end up asking for extra slices of bread to mop up the broth. It was a glorious mess.
I had also tried, for a starter, a grilled watermelon salad ($11), paired with feta, united by a certain graininess in texture, that is harmonized through a bright dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and sweet chilies.
Grilled watermelon salad. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
That was an auspicious beginning. There was also a salad of summer fruits: heirloom tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, pluots ($10), all delicately arranged, and complemented nicely with Hudson Valley blue cheese, and on the side, pimento powder, and black pepper.
Salad of peaches, nectarines, pluots, with Hudson Valley blue cheese (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
These were all perfect plates for sharing. The problem, I found, is that these were so good I started to feel that I didn’t want to share. I glanced at my dining companion with a hint of darkness in my heart. I admitted it to her. (It made me feel better.)
But by the time we had finished the mussels, my heart of darkness had been tamed. My friend noted a faraway look in my eyes. That, I told her, was the look of utter contentment. But it wasn’t over yet.
We also had a perfectly executed pan-fried chicken ($29), with a crisp skin, accompanied by mashed potatoes and Chinese greens. It was the most soul-satisfying kind of food there could be, simplicity at its most delicious pinnacle.
Pan-fried chicken, with Chinese greens, mashed potatoes, and succotash (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
It was accompanied by another one of summer’s humble but iconic dishes, succotash ($14), exuding enticing aromas from the harvest—corn here, carrots there—tied together by light truffle vinaigrette.
When it comes to dessert, Isidori makes a nostalgic turn. You will find the desserts of his Italian-American background, with his own reinterpretation, like “Spumoni My Way.”
Spumoni and butterscotch pudding (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
That Italian-American touch has grown stronger ever since Isidori’s father, a restaurateur, passed away. A third-generation chef, he has taken some lessons from his father and grandmother.
“My father taught me how to be a savvy chef, businessman, restaurateur,” he said. “My grandmother … taught me to put soul into my food. I remember how she cooked and her way and style and her flavor profile very vividly, and how everyone would gravitate toward her food. It was very comforting and very warming. I think she gave me that.”
There is a rustic farmhouse aesthetic going here, which is of course meant to represent the very market-oriented ethos here. The tables, painted white, are made of salvaged wood; the napkins come in a red and white gingham pattern, tied with some string. Two decorative chickens on a red weather vane perch high above the dining room.
A rustic farmhouse feel, in the middle of SoHo. (Chalk Point Kitchen) (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
But of course, Chalk Point Kitchen being smack dab in the middle of SoHo, the clientele doesn’t consist of muddy-boots-wearing tired farmhands, but rather, largely a young, well-coiffed crowd with model looks, and hardly anyone under the height of 6 feet.
But even if you don’t fit that description, and this is speaking from the perspective of being a foot shorter, and possessing the harried look of a working mom (and please let’s not even talk about the hair), the staff will look after you with care and eagerness. They looked so much like they enjoyed their work, I had to ask owner Matt Levine about it.
It turns out that it’s no accident. Levine spoke of Chalk Point Kitchen as a “creative hub of sorts,” where he likes to “hire creativity and passion over résumés.” Not only that, but wherever he can show off his staff’s skills, he does. When the restaurant hosts a movie premiere dinner party, for example, he makes sure his aspiring actor and actress are on schedule to work that evening.
Downstairs, the buzzing Handy Point Bar, also under his ownership, subsidizes some of the high cost of sourcing the high quality ingredients upstairs at the restaurant, which are often local and sustainable.
The Handy Liquor Bar, dowstairs, is also owned by Levine. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Normally, restaurant kitchens aren’t the prettiest of places, but a glance into the kitchen shows extreme tidiness, and probably the best lighting I have ever seen in a kitchen. The ceiling is lined with Basquiat reprints. The kitchen itself is set up for fine dining, Isidori said—no open burners, all flat tops, no obstructions—but produces family meals.
Diners are invited to walk right into the kitchen and let the chef know of any dietary restrictions.
Diners at Chalk Point Kitchen (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
The menu is tweaked every Friday, with daily specials. But changes happen in a deeper fashion every month. “I believe in the 12 seasons of the year. Every month is a new season because every month provides new variety,” Isidori said.
Change is natural, when you’re a farm-to-table restaurant. But to my relief, there are some dishes that stay on the menu, such as the delectable mussels in kimchi broth.
Chalk Point Kitchen
527 Broome St. (between Thompson and Sullivan)
Daily 6 p.m.–midnight
Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.–4 p.m.