Custom House Tavern is one of the city’s best-kept secrets, and that’s its biggest problem.
It’s not that people don’t know Custom House is there. But after almost two years of the owners tinkering with the place, few people know exactly what Custom House is anymore. So let’s begin with what the restaurant is not. It is not a steakhouse. The restaurant opened as such in 2005, when Shawn McClain was the chef (and a partner). But in 2009, friction between McClain and owners Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky and Peter Drohomyrecky led to a split. McClain left, and the Drohomyreckys reconcepted: Out was upscale beef, in was “simpler food.” Also in: chef Aaron Deal, who was to be the face of the newly named Custom House Tavern.
But a few months later, Deal was out. A new chef from St. Louis, Perry Hendrix, took his place.
Still with me? From the looks of Custom House’s mostly empty dining room, neither is the rest of the city. I can’t blame people for not knowing what the hell is going on at Custom House these days, much less who’s in the kitchen. But a couple of recent dinners there suggest things have settled down, and the focus has shifted from chef drama back to the food.
The transitions it has gone through seem to have left Custom House a little frazzled, but it is not tired or tattered. I saw employees ironing the tablecloths for tables that hadn’t seen customers and probably wouldn’t the rest of the night. That level of attention is not very much in vogue at the moment—people would rather stand in line for tortas or doughnuts from restaurants they can barely fit into—but Custom House is keeping it up anyway. Clearly, the Drohomyreckys think Hendrix’s food is worth keeping the place nice for.
I agree. It was barely May when I ventured in for a recent dinner, yet Hendrix’s menu was in third gear in terms of spring ingredients. His impeccable chicken liver pâté arrived with spears of pickled ramps. The richness of his braised rabbit appetizer was offset by the earthy presence of English peas. And his perfect risotto—the antithesis of mush—was paired with sweet morsels of roasted carrots. These spring ingredients did little to alleviate the general robustness of the food (the less well-executed of the dishes might be called heavy), but there was levity in the olive oil–poached halibut, which had the ethereal consistency of something like foam and had a small pitcher of buttermilk whey poured over it.
Each dish wasn’t perfect, of course. A pork loin chop paired with ramps, rhubarb and hazelnuts was not nearly as exciting as it sounds. And though the herb gnocchi had a toasty crust to them, the overall dish was fraught with oil. Still, things never derailed here until the dessert course. Where Hendrix is keeping things seasonal and somewhat rustic, pastry chef Bryce Caron seems to be still in hyper-fine-dining mode. His plates are all architecture and construction, shards of sugar sticking up like broken bottles among torn bits of spice cake. Sometimes, as with the frozen honey mousse with lime or the soft pistachio cake, it’s possible to readjust to the sudden, new style of food you’re being served and enjoy it. But other times—flavorless malted-milk doughnuts, that curious aforementioned spice cake—it’s not. Of course, diners who knew the old Custom House have to do some readjusting to appreciate the restaurant now anyway. At this point, it’s what’s expected.
By David Tamarkin