I often say that restaurants are living, breathing things, organisms greater—and sometimes lesser—than the sum of their parts. A place can have perfectly starched linen, attentive service, better than passable food, enough even to appeal to reviewers, but feel soulless. A humble hole in the wall that uses store-bought red sauce and has grimy loos can hold its own special magic.
The heartbeat of a restaurant is elusive if you listen too hard for it. You have to squint, savor what’s served up, what it tells you about the chef, and wait for the energy of the room to wash over you…because the special ones, though few and far between, will attract like-minded folk who are attracted to, and simultaneously essential to, the je ne c’est quoi factor. They’re mathematical reciprocals: restaurants and their clientele.
The best part about this energetic heartbeat of a place is that like all iterations of beauty, it’s utterly subjective. What makes my toes curl may make your skin crawl. It’s a gut reaction, a love connection, like any other. But this is my little Lovage you’re visiting, so I’ll tell you now about what I’m in love with: Navy.
Antique Japanese indigos from the early 20th century cover the windows, and the morning sun shining through highlights the careful, hand-sewn geometric patchwork repairs in the aged boros. Do you know what wabi-sabi is? It’s almost impossible to define in our Western lexicon, but in essence, it’s the Japanese notion that something is beautiful because of—not in spite of—its imperfections. It’s one of my favorite principals, and one that applies to most everything (a snaggletooth; an heirloom carrot; a riff of jazz).
At Navy, a copper coffee bar near the door becomes an oyster bar at night. Old naval flags and yellowed wooden banquets that look like they came from the deck of a salty old ferry line the narrow room. Vintage army canvas and saffron-hued antique French linens reflect the warm light cast by impeccable Kaiser-Dell scissor lamps and graceful milk glass shades. My favorite spot is where an old linen sheet was embroidered for its original owner; a aged marital gift, perhaps, appropriated in this maritime hub.
It’s no surprise I love this place; it’s from the old friends and owners—Matt Abramcyk and Akiva Elstein—who gave us the minute and magical Smith & Mills. At Navy, they’ve cleverly commissioned Camille Becerra to preside over the seafood and vegetable-focused menu. House-cured cod with a crispy grain cake and a smear of wasabi tobiko crème is a harmony of tastes and textures. A whole sardine with red roe garnishing its fishy head is, by Camille’s own admission, “a flavor balancing act,” and a successful one.
Camille may not look like the quintessential chef in her French laborer’s coat and wide-brimmed hat as she nestles up to us in a booth to say hi, but she’s killing it in the kitchen with dishes like crispy gnocchi with squash, poached egg and piquant, audacious tonnato. Her food, like all my favorite chefs’, is recognizable. The combination of elements—something creamy, something fishy, something crispy, something clean—are her tell, the artist’s thumbprint amid the brushstrokes. Decadent curls of cold uni butter on thick toasted pan de mie with celery and sorrel leaves is enough to make my knees go weak.
Navy had my heart at antique Japanese indigos and keeps it with roast bass with sauce gribiche. Daytime meals there, when there’s a little bit less bustle and lot more light to reflect, are where I’d happily ensconce myself to read for hours (if I had them). The perfect egg sandwich—something I’ve dedicated many a cruel morning to finding—with boiled eggs, caper-punctuated mayonnaise and cress, waits in a glass case for me like a beacon. An egg bowl of farro, sumac yogurt and roast veg appeases every hungry hippie.
I’m biased, sure. I’ve known these guys forever; they’ve supplied me with clubhouses before. Navy plays to all my maritime and Francophile tendencies; it’s where wabi-sabi and je ne c’est quoi meet. But biased or not, I am honest, and sometimes it’s nice to go where everybody knows your name.
A bientôt, mon amie bleu marine.
137 Sullivan St (Prince – Houston)
All photos by Nicole Franzen but the Polaroid, which is mine.