NEW YORK — It's easy to imagine many a sea captain sprawled out on the charred oaken floors of the Breslin, knocked cold after a brawl. The smell of smoking pig's feet wafts across black, wood tables. A bowl of onion soup floats past, oily with bone marrow. Animal skulls hang from walls that flicker with the bronze glow of hot stoves. The Breslin reminds me of a 17th-century whaling frigate, albeit smelling of fried head cheese and hipster. No, wait: Perhaps I'm thinking upscale pirate ship. Or early 20th-century saloon, circa Grover Cleveland, but with an afternoon pudding menu. Whatever it aspires to, or reminds you of, the Breslin Bar & Dining Room, tucked into the Ace Hotel, never reminds me I am at 29th and Broadway, a neighborhood so choked with beauty-supply stores and nondescript delis even nickname-happy Manhattan real estate mavens haven't come up with anything better than NoMad (aka North of Madison Square Park).
The Breslin feels more literary than real, Melvillian in its dimness and claustrophobia, Dickensian in its richness and menu (scrumpets, Stilton pie, the aforementioned daily pudding specials). If there was a style called "oppressively comfortable," the Breslin would serve as a proud example. It's also about as playfully discursive and different from John Dory Oyster Bar, found on the other side of the Ace Hotel, as Melville is from Fitzgerald, who would approve of Dory and its chilly, refreshing air, smelling as sweet as ocean roses.
Here everything is light, small: roasted beets and smoked trout, Vermont burrata with anchovies. April Bloomfield, who created both restaurants with business partner Ken Friedman, just can't do halfway. She is like Alice Waters, evangelical, but about dead animals, not mache, and is credited with starting the gastropub explosion in 2004 when she and Friedman opened the Spotted Pig in the West Village. A native of Birmingham, England, she may not have the kind of name that makes you think of animal parts, or fish so pervasively salty that your eyes water, but there is nothing genteel or subtle about the Breslin or the John Dory, or even her bar out in the lobby, all of which anchor this first New York outpost of the Ace hotel chain.
The overall effect, even if you never stay at the hotel itself, is of a smart food court, minus the fast casual. Here, under one tall coffered ceiling, is a persuasive argument for why the truffled white tablecloth formality of the 20th century has steadily been nudged out by a smokier, more fundamental style of comfort cooking.
The place to start, however, is the lobby. It's so informal and "anti-boutique," as the Ace owners have claimed, it's totally boutique. Eighteen-foot columns tower over rehabbed vintage couches and laboratory tables, all of which, every time I've been to the Ace, appear occupied by hotel guests and locals who have made the lobby their new Starbucks, their office away from their office — complete with a Stumptown Coffee stand.
Ace, like Stumptown, is a product of the Pacific Northwest, and there's more than a passing Portlandia aesthetic about this striking, wood-paneled room (which opened in 2009). It's a mix of the oldish, genuinely old and iMac. Which is not to suggest anything delicate here: The former occupant of the building was the Hotel Breslin, which opened in 1904; and in the back of the lobby is a bona fide Manhattan can't-miss, a massive mural composed of more than 4,000 old graffiti stickers, collected by Bronx artist Michael Anderson.
But Bloomfield's restaurants are the smart, earthy grounding that a hotel this potentially ethereal requires, and what's remarkable is how whatever pretension can be found in that lobby never intrudes in her dining rooms. The one must-have dish at the Breslin, despite a menu that pairs Nantucket scallops with pumpkin, is the gamy, messy lamb burger, which comes with a cone of "thrice cooked" fries, crisp on the outside, puffy inside. Even those scrumpets (only $7), best enjoyed while leaning back in a black leather banquette, basically come off like mozzarella sticks, only with shredded lamb and a dipping sauce of minty vinegar.
If there's connecting tissue between the restaurants, it's the oyster pan roast at John Dory, intense, creamy with vermouth, a yellow broth with three fat oysters and a small crostini smeared with uni butter. That's probably the heaviest dish on the Dory menu. The rest are small plates of seared octopus stuffed with chorizo and slight lemony wafers of inventive crudi — think black sea bass with shallots — and baskets overflowing with brown, crisp Parker House Rolls.
You leave Breslin feeling pregnant with meat. Dory is more of a steady lull. You stare at the large globe aquariums that hover over the ends of the bar. One is filled with Atlantic fish; the other with Pacific fish. I asked our waitress how they get food into the tanks. "You know, that's like the first thing I asked when I started here," she said. "But it's so complicated I decided it's better to enjoy them than know what goes in."
If you go
Ace Hotel New York: 20 W. 29th St., New York; acehotel.com/newyork
The Breslin: thebreslin.com
The John Dory Oyster Bar: johndory.com
Note: Breslin and John Dory do not take reservations.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times