Do you think of Little Italy as a locale for red sauce dining and the Feast of San Gennaro? And perhaps you know a bit of the rich and tenacious history of the area, first populated by Germans, then by the Italians, and now a hodgepodge of Italians, Albanians and Asians.
Here's something in the nabe that's a bit more unexpected. On Mulberry Street, the heartland of everything red, white and green in New York City, there's a dose of the determined immigrant spirit taking hold in an entirely new manner. Down a few steps through an unmarked door sits an über-cool drink emporium with cuisine that’s as exciting as anywhere in Manhattan or Brooklyn. The brainchild of Chef Michael “Kiwi” Camplin, formerly of Boquería and one of the most charming New Zealanders you’ll ever meet, the Mulberry Project seems almost a throwback to Prohibition days, with a speakeasy setting that’s at the same time lush and welcoming.
Black cushion banquettes or stools at the shiny metal bar are the seats in demand to watch the parade of bespoke cocktails and little plates that comprise a meal here (as well as the beautiful clientele who have discovered this gem). Charming and knowledgeable Italian and French bartenders skilled in molecular mixology create cocktails from a list of fresh fruit and herbs – you give a hint of the type of base you want (vodka, tequila, gin) and your mood, and they’ll do the rest. It’s a bit of beverage wizardry, and you might get a watermelon mint take on a vodka gimlet or perhaps a gin version that’s laced with fresh thyme, maraschino cherry syrup and cucumber.
Dishes change according to the chef’s whim and what’s freshest. My favorites of the moment: yellowtail crudo with summer peas, soft shell crab with a small lace of lemon jam, short rib sliders tenderized in water and graced with a bit of silky sheep’s milk cheese, and a simple braised octopus with the right hint of balsamic and chili oil. If you think a Little Italy dessert is only about cannoli or gelato, you’re wrong here. It’s a must to try the Mulberry Project’s tasting plate, four miniature versions of the restaurant’s signatures: a chocolate duo that’s both salty and sweet, bread and butter pudding that had me begging for more, a perfect crème brûlée, and an apple tarte tatin enlivened with a butterscotch drizzle.
To add to the specialness of this enclave for those “in the know,” there’s an outdoor garden that has a tongue-in-cheek lawn area, spectacular graffiti art, hip music, and torchieres should the weather become chilly again.
The Mulberry Project is open for dinner but offers brunch on the weekends. A red velvet rope and bouncer after 9pm will help you spot the location but won't necessarily get you through the door. Reservations absolutely required. 149 Mulberry Street.