Narcissa used to be an easy choice anytime you couldn’t risk having a bad experience. You’d come here with a significant other the night before your first trip abroad together, or with your boss when you were trying to avoid getting moved to the basement like Milton in Office Space. The fancy-but-not-too-fancy dining room, as well as the excellent vegetable-focused small plates, made this spot inside the Standard East Village pleasing to just about everyone. But these days, there’s a new chef and a less interesting menu - and while the atmosphere still works for lots of different situations, the food has fallen off to the point that we’d hesitate to recommend it for any of them.
Narcissa is a hotel restaurant, but not the overly stuffy kind - there are no white tablecloths or paintings on loan from the baroness of a small European principality. The attractive, busy space is connected to two other bars in the Standard, where you can get drinks before or after dinner without stepping outside. It feels more polished than a lot of other East Village restaurants, with sommeliers who’ll happily explain the difference between the natural and biodynamic wines that make up the wine list, and servers attentive enough to please your mother-in-law who times how long it takes for her water glass to be refilled.
Those things haven’t changed since Narcissa first opened - but the food has. The fantastic vegetable-focused dishes that used to make Narcissa a must-visit have been replaced with more predictable seasonal American ones. Not only are many of the things on the menu - like burrata, grilled octopus, and a whole branzino - as common at hotel restaurants as left-behind business cards, but the flavors are also dialed back to the point that you’ll generally forget about them before a dish is even cleared from your table. The cavatelli is little more than an expensive plate of buttered noodles, and the burrata has the consistency of liquidy oatmeal and a flavor that reminds us of cold skim milk. The grilled octopus is dry, and the porchetta is so fatty that you pretty much need the knife skills of Edward Scissorhands to find any meat.
If you do find yourself here for dinner, you can have a decent meal assuming you stick to a few specific things. All of the fresh-baked bread is great, and the sweet potato with creamy pesto tastes like it’s been slow-cooked over a campfire (in a very good way). The fried chicken has juicy meat with crunchy skin glazed in honey, and it’s enjoyable enough that you might not even mind paying $33 for four pieces. But while it’s possible to have a pleasant time here, when you can’t risk having a bad experience, there are a lot of other spots you should consider first. Narcissa isn’t the sure bet it used to be.
This comes with one normal Parker House roll that’s soft and buttery, and one that’s infused with seaweed, which is even better. Get multiple orders.
Picture what happens when you add way too much milk while cooking oatmeal, and you’ll have a sense of both the liquidy consistency and bland flavor of this burrata. The whole wheat sourdough served on the side is very good, but you might as well eat it plain.
You may say that ordering $23 grilled octopus at a hotel restaurant is basically asking to be disappointed. Here, at least, you’d be right. Even if you have a really high tolerance for salt, you’ll also have to deal with extremely charred skin and dry meat.
The combination of fresh crab, seaweed, and sea beans tastes kind of like waking up from a nap on the beach to a face full of seawater when the tide comes in. We assume. If you’re a fan of that level of oceany flavor, then you’ll like this small plate.
This plate of mushrooms tastes as meaty as beef tartare, and we also like the citrusy sauce that comes with it. But you’re still paying $15 for a small portion of mushrooms.
If you get one appetizer here, this should be it. The smoky wedges of sweet potato are tender to the point that they’re almost like mashed potatoes inside, and they’re topped with chilis and creamy pesto that add some kick and richness.
We like buttered noodles as much as the next person - unless the next person happens to be a seven-year-old - but we don’t want a plate of them when we pay $24 for pasta with oyster mushrooms and black truffle.
Calling this “crackling porchetta” is like calling a dictionary a picture book because there’s an image on the cover. The razor-thin layer of crispy skin is totally lost on top of a massive slab of fat.
If you’re OK paying $33 for four pieces of fried chicken, then this is a must-order. The meat is juicy and tender, and the skin is crispy and coated in a sweet honey glaze.
This is a good way to end your meal here, as long as you prefer savory to sweet desserts, and you really like coconut - the dense cake is served over kaya cream, which tastes kind of like coconut yogurt.