If the room had more life to it—if it were not essentially just a long room of black walls and white chairs—it might have worked.
If the awkwardly formal service were toned down to match the staff’s jeans-and-neckties uniform, it might have worked.
If the soft-rock, ’70s soul hadn’t clashed with the carefully plated food, it might have worked.
But even if all of this were fixed, Premise would still be the rehabbed, reconcepted and renamed In Fine Spirits. And that, its most unforgivable sin, can never be undone.
I won’t pretend to know anything about IFS’s finances. It always seemed busy to me, but who knows what money pits hid under the surface? What I will speak to is IFS’s charm. It was among the first of the city’s new-wave cocktail bars (it’s the bar that gave us Benjamin Schiller), and yet it never fell into all those cloying cocktail trappings: the vested “mixologists,” the antique fonts. The wine list was always interesting. The food, by Marianne Sundquist, was rustic and seasonal and craveable. Warm marcona almonds. A pulled-pork sandwich served with a shot of Buffalo Trace. IFS was a food bar, a wine bar, a cocktail bar, a straight bar, a lesbian bar, or all or some or none of these things. It struck a balance. In that, it was a rarity.
So why the owners would reconcept to try fine dining in a neighborhood that time and time again rejects it (please see Acre) is a question not just for food writers but for everybody in the neighborhood. Just the other night I stood outside Premise and watched as families strode up to the restaurant’s window, frowned at the expensive and alien menu, exchanged confused looks and finally sauntered south to Lady Gregory’s.
And they hadn’t even been inside. Hadn’t even tried the food.
Disappointment fuels the ’hood’s mourning of IFS. But execution is what fuels the disappointment with Premise. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a restaurant as disjointed as this one. The sights don’t match the sounds, and neither matches the complex dishes Brian Runge (formerly of Graham Elliot) is putting out. Of those dishes, I found many confusing, and a couple delicious. But more important, I found almost all of them overwhelmingly, almost comically salty. Gorgeous agnolotti (pretty much every plate here looks stunning) is filled with fava beans, but there’s too much salt and butter to taste them. Smoked salmon had a perfectly medium-rare texture, but there were no hints of smoke. Fine-dining falafel is a great idea, and Runge makes a wonderful tabouli to go with it, but the creamy-crisp orbs themselves are salt bombs. Ditto the lamb. (And if you think all this salt talk is repetitive to read, try eating it.)
Fluke tartare stood out for the opposite reason: It was nicely seasoned but didn’t overwhelm the pristine flavor of the fish. Firm, juicy compressed melon with candied peanuts and sharp buttermilk is a dish that seems a little sweet to put at the beginning of the meal (it is the second in Runge’s five-course tasting menu), but it’s a balanced and thought-provoking dish and, anyway, if you’re going to order melon, you can’t complain. Besides, sweet may be where Premise finally gets its act together. The chocolate torte is the first time, ever, that I’ve felt the combination of chocolate and chilies made sense. And the walnut financiers are perfect little cakes, with crisp edges and soft middles. If all of Runge’s food were like this, or if Premise had kept its interesting cocktail program (there’s one in the building, but, illogically, you have to go upstairs to the lounge), or if the vibe in here weren’t so darn chilly, Premise would be a soothing comfort for the loss of IFS, and not just a stinging reminder of what is gone. But that’s a lot of ifs.