If you had told me two weeks ago that some of the best fried chicken I'd have this year was gluten-free, I would have said you were crazy. Besides the fact that the gluten-free "trend" at best makes me roll my eyes and at worst makes me want to strangle an elf, how can you get that crunchy exterior without a little help from wheat flour (Wylie Dusfresne I am not)? Well, you can, as it turns out; and it turns out real good at the newly revamped Colors on Lafayette near Astor Place.
Originally opened in 2006 by Windows on the World employees who were spared on 9/11, the "ethical" restaurant has been through a lot in the interim, from new chefs to closed doors and back again. The decor, the chef and the GF angle are new this time, but the restaurant still boasts the same commitment to sustainability, both in its food sourcing and treatment of its workers. Owned by ROC-United, a non-profit advocacy group that stands for worker's rights, the new Colors supports the One Fair Wage campaign, paying its employees a living wage that eschews the Tipped Minimum Wage common at most restaurants in the United States.
On board behind the scenes is One If By Land, Two If By Sea chef Colt Taylor, who tells me he designed the gluten-free menu not to follow trend, but because he "really believes gluten is harmful to the body." Regardless of his reasons, the food is generally good, bordering on great. At a press preview last week, the most successful appetizer was a Tuna Crudo ($12) served with a crunchy rice chip and a schmear of whipped avocado. A Beef Tartare ($11), while wonderfully fresh, could have used something with bite, a caper or chopped raw onion, perhaps.
I'm usually all about the apps, but the entrees here were really the stars, especially that fried chicken. Purists will hate that it's off the bone, but even so, the juiciness of the meat can't be denied. The multi-flour treatment gets an additional boost of crunch "from Metamucil," Taylor explains. He's joking, but only a little; psyllium seed husks, the main ingredient in the fiber supplement, become super crunchy when fried. Who knew you'd be able to boast a health benefit from eating something fried? Those benefits are undoubtably outweighed by the decadent pommes puree and spiced honey the dish comes served with.
Another big hit of the night was the Sweet Corn Risotto ($18), a gooey bowl of soft rice fortified with cheese, jalapeno and what must be an ungodly amount of butter (not complaining!). Anyone strictly adhering to the al dente preparation may find the rice overdone, but when the funky flavors of Manchego and candy-like kernels of corn come through, the texture becomes of secondary concern. Also of note: the Roasted Whole Branzino ($30), arriving completely whole at the table accompanied by a charred lime and a delicious salsa verde. Navigating a fish skeleton can be complicated, but the flavors are there.
Having never visited its previous incarnations, I can't speak to the differences in decor with much authority. The railroad setup seems a bit off-putting and some of the benches seem strangely far (and without chair backs!) from their tables, but otherwise the dining room is unobtrusive. Cocktails erred on the side of sour, like the violet-hued Aviation ($12) and a very tart rye-based drink called Final Word ($13); beers and wines are on-market between $6 and $12 for the most part.
417 Lafayette Street between Astor Place and East 4th Street, (212) 777-8443; website