New York

All photos courtesy of Hags

Dish By DishNew York

At Hags, Queer Fine Dining Is a Fantasy Come True

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For chef Telly Justice and beverage director Camille Lindsley, their new restaurant, Hags, got its start as a fantasy, in every sense of the word. The two fine dining veterans — Justice worked at Contra, Wildair, and Wylie Dufresne’s now-shuttered Alder, and her partner, Lindsley, was a sommelier for Aldo Sohm Wine Bar — wanted to create a dining experience that was different from anything they’d known before.

Hags was something they dreamt up during the pandemic, through the course of their seven-year relationship, and the result is a restaurant where queerism is at the heart of everything they do. Hags upends the historic elitism that fine dining holds by welcoming everyone — especially the queer and trans community — and those from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s about putting the community first, and now, it’s more than just a fantasy — it’s a reality. And it’s revolutionary.

While most fine dining establishments prioritize white tablecloths or dress codes, and abide by specific rules and expectations, Justice and Lindsley redefine the meaning of “fine dining” by prioritizing community care first. The highest luxury at Hags isn’t defined by a caviar supplement or a pricey bottle of wine; it’s about being accessible to the entire community of diners who walks through its doors.

“We wanted to create something that would take care of us and, in turn, care for others and people in the queer community, which contributes to a luxurious experience where they feel extraordinarily cared for and seen,” says Justice.

That level of thoughtfulness and care is visible throughout the restaurant: The restaurant is fully accessible in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Diners select their own pronoun pins to wear upon entering. The mirror in the bathroom was specifically designed so trans folks don’t feel dysphoric. There are complimentary fentanyl test strips and Narcan in the bathroom. Every recipe for each of their five-course tasting menus is available online for those who’d prefer to replicate the dishes themselves. Sundays will have a special dedicated menu that’s pay-what-you-can.

Over the last two years, Justice and Lindsley incorporated community feedback into their plans for Hags, and it’s informed the restaurant ethos wholly: Hags is not highbrow, and it’s intentionally intimate, with only 19 seats. “We want folks to be themselves or feel like they can be someone else for the night, all while being celebrated,” says Lindsley.

Chef Telly Justice (she/her) with her business and life partner, beverage director Camille Lindsley (she/her). Photo by Seth Caplan, courtesy of Hags
Chef Telly Justice (she/her) with her business and life partner, beverage director Camille Lindsley (she/her). Photo by Seth Caplan, courtesy of Hags

The menu is just as carefully crafted, and in one area that’s keeping with fine dining tenets, it emphasizes precision, technique, intention, and seasonality. Where it differs from traditional fine dining is how it all comes together: The creative process for each dish is a full collaboration with the whole team instead of a top-down hierarchy. “It’s collective non-linear thinking and chaotic as hell, and that is a testimony to our process and our intimacy with one another, which is so necessary to the space,” says Justice.

Sous chef Lo Alalay and Justice work hand-in-hand, and credit is given where it is due, as with Lo’s Homo Salad, a fixture on the vegan tasting menu. “So many dishes on the menu have sprung out of a collaborative effort. I feel like the inherently queer part and parcel of it is us being totally willing and down to kill our darlings. So, so many, very classical fine dining places don’t allow themselves to indulge in such caprices,” says Justice. Hags, she says, welcomes change and adaption, and that’s what being queer and trans is all about: fluidity.

The highest luxury at Hags isn’t defined by a caviar supplement or a pricey bottle of wine; it’s about being accessible to the entire community of diners who walks through its doors.

Hags offers two five-course tasting menus: one is vegan ($145 per person) and the other is omnivorous ($155 per person), and both come with the option to add a beverage pairing that’s much more than an afterthought. Justice and Lindsley are so in sync with one another, both as business and life partners, and that shines through in the wine pairings ($85 per person). Lindsley says they’ll soon have a non-alcoholic beverage pairing available, too.

Here’s a dish-by-dish look at five signature dishes from Hags’ two tasting menus, in Lindsley and Justice’s own words.

1. Tomato

Heirloom tomato, fava, sesame, and gooseberry | Offered on both tasting menus

“It’s the first course on both tasting menus, and I really love having a shared moment where both vegans and omnivores get to experience the same thing, especially with how abundant tomato season is, and how good it is this year. It’s just fun to put a little tomato in everybody’s mouth,” says Justice.

“It’s an heirloom tomato sliced very thickly that is kind of enrobed in a creamy fava bean dressing that’s been emulsified with a really lovely golden sesame oil and shiso vinegar that we make here in-house. It’s garnished with a chiffonade of fresh shiso and perilla leaf, which is sesame leaf. On top of that is fermented and charred gooseberry that has been sprinkled with this really lovely mixed sesame seed condiment from SOS Chefs, which is around the corner; we’re obsessed with them. Atef [Boulaabi, the owner], is one of the coolest people in the neighborhood. So, we love to support them in any way that we can. [The dish] is very nutty, with the sesame, but also incredibly herbaceous.”

2. Lo’s Homo Salad

Red lettuces, flowers, quince, and radish | Offered on the vegan tasting menu

“Lo’s Homo Salad is the second course for the vegan tasting menu,” says Justice, and it’s named for Hags’ sous chef. “This has multiple red lettuces; we’ve got endive, trevisano, red oak lettuce, castelfranco, and really anything red and leafy that we can find at the market. So, the leaves kind of change day-to-day. They’re dressed in this floral, pungent over the top, neon pink dressing made from red radishes, rose water, hibiscus, and passion berries. Just like every floral, juicy pungent thing we can throw in there. As well as lime, a ton of lime. Most restaurants are lemon restaurants; we’re a lime restaurant.

“And then, once it’s dressed, we layer it on plates and garnish it with apple blossoms, some quince that we’ve pickled in rose vinegar from Tart, and then steeped in a hibiscus tea, as well as shaved raw radish. You get these bitter notes from the lettuce. You get these floral notes from the rose hibiscus and the apple blossoms and a lot of acid from the lime and quince, and it’s just so beautiful. It looks like Nickelodeon, you know, condensed into this little leafy delicate salad. And my favorite part of the dish is the tableside detail: We add a little fragrant pop from these atomizers of rosewater, which we also get from SOS Chefs as well. It’s really lovely. Very refreshing. Very fun. It is a very gay salad.”

3. Pork and Beans

Whole pig presse, creamy beans, melted carrot, chicories and smoked oyster | Offered on the omnivore tasting menu

“On the menu we have this listed as pork and beans because we want to elicit those home feelings, like comfort food, emotional eating type of feelings that you get from going to a friend’s house for dinner or going to a potluck,” says Justice. “But we try our best to take all the things that we love about a classic pairing, like pork and beans, and make it a little extra special through heightened technique and some really quality sourcing. The pig itself is a presse of multiple parts from a single pig. Right now, we’re sourcing our animals from Sugar Hill Farm upstate.

“This particular slice today has a little bit of pork belly, the loin, a brined section of the ham, and a little bit of the jowl. We treat all those parts separately and then press them back together and confit in its own lard. It’s a really special showcase of wonderful animal rearing and butchery. That’s over a little bit of creamy southern-style beans. We use Yellow Indian Woman Beans and source these from SOS Chefs – I cannot say enough kind things about them – with a little small dice of carrots. There’s a little bit of carrot hot sauce folded into that as well, just to pull the carrot flavor further and deeper into the dish. You’ll see a little pooling of what we’re calling a melted carrot sauce. I will not be elaborating on that one.

“The pork is dressed with a little bit of smoked and dried oysters as kind of condiment. We fry the oysters with preserved lemon and Cobanero chiles, and then remove the oil and blanket the presse with that. It’s a little surf-and-turf moment in a way, and just to cut the richness in the fat of the dish, we garnish it with a little bit of really lovely green chicories up at the corner of the plate. It’s a fun dish. A lot of thought and care and love goes into it, and I think that you get to taste that when you enjoy it on the tasting menu.”

4. Lobster, Chayote, and Peppers

Butter-poached lobster, chayote, boudin, chiles and nasturtium | Offered on the omnivore tasting menu

“For this dish, we butter poach lobster tail and serve half of a tail with a little spear of chayote, which is an ancient squash,” says Justice. “This was actually [sous chef] Lo’s idea to use this preparation on this plate, and I think it’s the star of the show. Honestly, it’s rare to see chayote as a star on a plate, but I think that it’s the most exciting thing that we serve, in my opinion. It’s very understated, but it’s really cool.

“We take these chayotes and poach them whole in a broth of vegetable stock and red shrimp paste. It gets very pungent, very umami, very unctuous. And we cut it into eighths and serve a little sliver of that next to the lobster tail. Then, next to that is a little log of lobster Boudin, which kind of looks like a hot dog, which I think is very fun!”

“It does look just like a hot dog,” adds Lindsley.

“It’s crazy, right?” says Justice. “This is lobster that has been emulsified with cooked Charleston Gold rice; it’s similar to Carolina Gold, but the differences are very subtle; it’s a slightly shorter grain and has a nuttier taste. Then we add pork fat, a lot of sherry and allspice, as well as shishito peppers which are pureed into it to get little summery pepper notes throughout it. It’s very soft and luscious with luxurious textures. We make this out of raw claw meat, so we’re using the entire animal.

“Then we do a tableside pouring of a little lobster bisque that’s been scented with lime leaf that’s also marbled with this really cool chile oil that we make in-house. It’s got a lot of peppery notes, a ton of lobster flavor, and this incredibly delicate poach chayote that is somehow the star of the show. It’s a cool dish; I really like it, and I really like talking about it. Oh, and it’s garnished with nasturtiums.”

5. Chocolate Panna Cotta

Black cocoa jam, Elliot pecans, golden raisins, and hyssop | Offered on the vegan tasting menu

“It’s kind of like a cocoa pot de crème,” says Justice. “I don’t know that there’s an elegant word for what it is because it’s vegan, and we don’t use eggs or gelatin or anything like that to set it, but it’s got the texture and likeness of a pot de crème. We make it with fresh soy milk, and it’s garnished with dots of black cocoa fudge, a Georgia pecan praline caramel, golden sultana raisins that we’ve plumped up in a sherry and anise simple syrup, and a couple of trimmings of anise hyssop leaf. It’s just this rich, decadent, but ethereal and very adult, grown-up way of eating chocolate pudding. You know, it’s really fun. And the wine pairing with it is super, super fantastic.”

Adds Lindsley, “I love the anise hyssop; it’s really fun. I feel like Telly’s food is all about flavors that are familiar, but presented in an unfamiliar or new kind of way.”

“The food tastes rustic,” Justice adds. “And our cooking techniques are rustic; we cook the way you would at home. But we do it with maybe a little bit more precision. Probably with better ingredients, depending on how big your grocery budget is, and, we take the time and care to present it in a fun, exciting, interesting way. But we definitely like to infuse these seemingly comforting, rustic dishes with little quirky, eccentric, creative elements that I think make them unique and individual.”

 

Hags is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 5 to 10 p.m.

 

This article was written by Gabrielle Lenart, co-founder of the Queer Food Foundation. Gabrielle is a New York-based freelance writer, community organizer, and longtime home baker with more than five years of experience in digital marketing and content marketing strategy. Follow her on Instgram.
 
The Queer Food Foundation is a collective of queer individuals who work at all intersections of the food system — from food justice, culinary to community organizing, media, hospitality, and more. The foundation is passionate about holding space for the queer community in food and aims to share their skills, knowledge, and experiences to create a thriving, represented and intersectional food system. Follow the Queer Food Foundation on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.