Given its reputation for the highest fashion in the smallest sizes, Barneys might seem to be the least likely Mecca for a very New York Jewish chicken soup, irresistibly crunchy house-made bagels and bialys, and cozily flavorful pastas and pizzas. (There’s also fashionable abstemious choices of fish, vegetables and salads.) Yet, those are the hearty dishes that have made Freds, the emporium’s top-floor restaurant, a hot ticket for business and social lunches, dinners, private parties and convivially crowded Sunday brunches.
The intriguing tale of how the drab downstairs eatery in the flagship Madison Avenue Barneys New York morphed into the brightly expansive top-floor Freds is well-told in the detailed, entertaining and wholly practical The Freds at Barneys New York Cookbook. It is the story of Chef Mark Strausman, now managing director of the Freds restaurants in the company’s stores in Chelsea, as well as in Chicago and Beverly Hills. Written with Susan Littlefield, it chronicles Strausman’s 22-year role as the guiding toque, giving much due credit to the store’s savvy, fashion-minded guiding hands, Fred Pressman, son of founder Barney Pressman, and later, Barney’s grandsons, Gene and Bob.
Describing himself as “a Jewish boy from Queens,” and with a recipe for Russian dressing to prove it, Strausman traces his development as a chef via professional restaurant school, stints in European kitchens as well as the once-fashionable Mortimer’s. Later and more significantly he cooked at restaurateur Pino Luongo’s Hampton outpost, Sapore di Mare and, finally, Coco Pazzo in Manhattan, where his name really began to register and finally leading to his own establishment, Campagna.
Italian cuisine is not the only string to his bow, and his menu and recipes in this book reflect French influences gained during his travels, as well as of his native New York Jewish favorites, such as his house-made bagels and bialys. (As the author of the book, The Bialy Eaters, I agreed to be one of his tasters as he was perfecting his bialy recipe.)
His most iconic dish, Estelle’s Chicken Soup, is named for his grandmother whose soup he adored. Strausman prepares it in three episodes lasting three days, to best celebrate the qualities he most loved about it.
An unsnobbish concern for the home cook permeates the book with details on basic kitchen equipment and special utensils where needed, plus tips on food sources, shortcuts and substitutions that might be necessary.
Recipes for the exquisitely illustrated dishes are grouped by meal, i.e. lunch, brunch, dinner and so on, with special chapters on pastas (don’t miss ravioli verdant with asparagus, nettles and spring peas) and desserts (think peach melba, tiramisu and local blueberry crisp). Throughout it is obvious that Strausman favors the seasonal and the currently popular minimalist style of cooking.
As ambitious cooking no longer interests me, I will use this delectable book as a guide to Freds menu and so will go in search of fusilli al basilico, shrimp oreganata, English pea soup with mint, pizza Emilia-Romagna and cheese fondue scrambled eggs. I might even be induced to risk the vegan bolognese with whole-wheat penne, to say nothing of any of the chopped chicken salads and, for dessert at the right time, summer strawberry shortcake.
Having spent my childhood during the 1930s radio days, the very name Barneys recalls the commercials for the bargain-priced menswear announced by the store’s founder. Identifying it as being on 7th Avenue and 17th Street, Barney Pressman then assured listeners that it was “The ONLY store of its kind in New York.” And perhaps it still is.
Not being able to choose from this embarrassment of tempting dishes, I propose a toast to Freds and Mark Strausman with the establishment’s signature cocktail, naturally, the Fred and Ginger.
Fred and Ginger
1 oz Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur
6 oz Champagne (or dry sparkling wine, such as prosecco)
splash Pomegranate juice (such as from Pom)
Garnish: Small slice of crystallized ginger, cut to fit on the glass rim
Add the ginger liqueur to a chilled Champagne flute and then slowly add the Champagne and the splash of pomegranate juice. Garnish with the crystallized ginger. Serve immediately, with a toast to your health.