NYC: Village Den
When you first walk into Village Den, the newly rebooted West Village restaurant by Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski, one of the first things you see is a large blue sign proclaiming “Things That Matter”.
“Being yourself” is on the menu, as is “Dreaming”. You’ll find “Animals” and “Believing in something” on there, as well as “Calling your mother”.
It’s an on-brand touch from the resident food and wine expert of the Fab Five, who’ve brought the iconic feel-good Bravo makeover show – which premiered in 2003 – back to Netflix at a tumultuous time when America was practically begging for something happy and sweet.
Queer Eye has turned Antoni and his cohorts into national sensations, but the former private chef to Ted Allen (the current host of Chopped and original Queer Eye food guy) soon became known more for his abs – and love of avocadoes – than his skills in the kitchen.
So when Antoni announced he was bringing back Village Den, a 36-year-old greasy diner nestled in New York’s charming West Village, it seemed he wanted to prove both that his cooking talents extended far beyond guacamole and grilled peach salad, and that he had the kind of makeover skills that warranted his place among the likes of Tan, Jonathan, Bobby, and Karamo.
But did he succeed? On a rainy November day, Loyal Nana decided to find out.
Village Den can be found on the corner of W 12th and Greenwich Avenue, a celebrity-studded area that turned up sightings of Julianne Moore, Food Network chef Anne Burrell, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell (who even came in for a late lunch) on the day we came by. The non-stop star sightings are among the many things about Village Den that had one of my lunch companions declaring it was “so L.A”.
The place has also been redone to match California’s bright and breezy vibe, with tables painted in light turquoise and Santorini blue while a bright mural of the neighborhood – complete with an apple and banana making out and a broccoli breakdancing – fills the back wall.
Antoni’s restaurant also just happens to be located right across from an Equinox gym, an audience that Village Den’s menu absolutely caters to. The list of breakfast, salad, bowls, and smoothies all come with symbols that indicate whether a dish or drink is vegetarian, paleo, keto, Whole 30, plant-based, gluten-free, or even “detox”.
It thus probably comes as no surprise that fixtures from the original Village Den’s menu – triple-decker sandwiches, “jumbo” burgers, and challah French toast – are nowhere to be found. In their place are the likes of almond and walnut pancakes, breakfast bowls filled with poached eggs and grilled avocado (of course), stuffed cabbage, and almond Caesar salad.
We opted to start our meal with the Village Mama, a bowl packed with lentils, cauliflower, spaghetti squash, and beet hummus. The latter gave the entire dish a gorgeous and playful punch of pink color that nicely paired with the warm lentils. It was easily the star of the bowl, which also benefited from the warm but light spaghetti squash. But the spinach sprinkled on top felt like more of an afterthought, and the mushy dish could have benefited from a crunchier leaf.
Next up was the Thai Chicken Bowl, seasoned with coconut peanut sauce and purple cabbage over a lemongrass brown rice. The bowl came out nice and warm and the chicken was tasty, although the coconut flavor didn’t come through the strong peanut taste. The purple cabbage was a great vegetable addition to the dish that added some much-needed color, although the entire table agreed we wanted it all to be just a tad more spicy.
One dish that didn’t have that problem was the Jerk Turkey Meatballs, easily my favorite Village Den offering. Antoni gives the meatballs his healthy spin by choosing turkey’s leaner protein, but they lose none of the flavor thanks to a green sauce filled with spice and a chunky pineapple chutney that cools it down at the same time. The meatballs are accompanied with a cauliflower rice that is unexpectedly bold and shredded to a nice thickness that allows it to carry the dish’s sauces without turning soggy.
While the Jerk Turkey Meatballs were resoundingly praised by my table, the Fish Sticks were unanimously voted as our least favorite dish of the day. The Fish Sticks are offered as one of the Village Den’s “TV Dinners”, which also includes stuffed cabbage, roast chicken, and a selection of sides. Thanks to the cute name, TV Dinners were frequently mentioned when news of Antoni’s restaurant first hit the press. But after so much hype, the actual product was a letdown. While the macadamia crust brings a healthy spin to a childhood favorite, it completely rids fish sticks of their signature crunch and beloved flavor.
‘Cod is such a nice cut of fish and it’s easy to do, but that breading took away from it,’ one of my companions said. ‘It didn’t have a nice crunch or the flakiness you get from an actual fried cod.’
And while we enjoyed the sweet potatoes we selected as one of our sides, I found the citrus fennel slaw to be too sharp. The arugula and grapefruit made for a bitter pair that completely overpowered everything else on the plate.
Village Den is still in its early days, and clearly has a few kinks to work out. When we arrived the restaurant was decorated with pumpkins and gourds that felt out of place with its California state of mind. And the soundtrack flipped from hip-hop bangers to the Friends theme song which, while definitely fun, didn’t seem to fit with a place that wants to attract people looking to fuel up and wind down after a sweat session.
But the place should also be praised for bringing in the West Coast’s creativity when it comes to the fast-casual all-day café. Dishes like the Jerk Turkey Meatballs prove that healthy doesn’t have to mean bland. My two companions happily noted that, even after sampling a slew of dishes, they didn’t feel ‘disgustingly stuffed’. And I for one am hoping that the Village Den helps make beet hummus far more popular stateside.
If Antoni set out to prove that there is far more to him than abs and avocados, he easily succeeded. The Village Den may need a ‘French tuck’ here and a ‘bold lip’ there – so to speak - but it’s well on its way to being a contender in New York’s healthy café scene.