New blood in the kitchen means more pork on the plate.
Wed Dec 3 2008
Photograph: Jeff Gurwin
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
I was an early fan of Ryan Skeen’s pigcentric cooking and easy hand with offal when he first made his mark at the Belgianish eatery Resto. The chef, who left it behind last summer and was last seen consulting at General Greene, signed on as an unlikely replacement for John Schaefer at Irving Mill. Whereas Schaefer struggled to escape the shadow of his former employer, Gramercy Tavern, only to wind up knocking off its seasonal American fare, Skeen’s homey menu is far more distinctive—and much more in sync with the restaurant’s casual service and setting.
On my first visit under his reign, the enormous spot just off Union Square—buzzing with easy conversation and a rambling rock soundtrack—seemed to be finally finding its rhythm. The space, with a tableau of antique farm implements and old-fashioned framed portraits and landscapes, was warmer than I remembered, and so was the service—our waiter seemed genuinely excited by the food he was selling.
Skeen, working off the palette he played with at Resto, has fashioned a meaty menu of generously portioned, geographically ambiguous food—a rustic mix of American, French and Italian cuisines. The one thing tying it all together is an unhealthy affinity for the other white meat. I imagine he’s transformed the basement kitchen into a porcine mausoleum, packed with dangling sausages and pigs broken down into ears, feet, bellies and loins.
Those parts and more make their way into the new signature dish—a spread of multifarious pork designed to be shared as a starter. This so-called charcroute features a crispy bed of pickled cabbage topped with falling-off-the-bone salt-and-pepper ribs (a delicious holdover from Resto), truffled feet wrapped in gelatinous ears before being breaded and fried, spicy blood sausage, mild boudin blanc, fork-tender glazed shoulder and belly, and a pistachio-studded headcheese terrine. That a dish this daring could be the centerpiece of such a populist restaurant tells you how far New Yorkers have come as nose-to-tail diners. The biggest problem is having to fight over the choicest cuts.
Skeen built his reputation on more than just pork. Since debuting his burger at Resto, much has been made of his prowess with ground beef—the new gauge, for reasons beyond me, of a New York chef’s innate talent. For his latest entry in the haute burger wars, he makes a $15 patty from a combo of beef cheek, flap steak and fatback, chars it fast and hot on the edges, and then stuffs it into a properly squishy grilled potato bun. Though rich and fatty, in the end it’s still just another overpriced burger.
The menu offers so many more interesting choices, inspired not by American junk food but by European peasant cuisine. At his last post, Skeen looked to Belgium more as reference than road map. Here he toys just as freely with other traditional fare. If his “charcroute” bears only a vague resemblance to choucroute, his lamb cassoulet is even further removed from the protoype—swapping in a cocoa bean ragout for the white-bean casserole. Instead of braising everything together, Skeen cooks each element separately, piling on lamb four ways—medium-rare loin, olive-tinged sausage, belly confit and tender poached leg stuffed with fiery harissa—just before service. While it may not be the cassoulet a Frenchman would crave, it’s still a fine wintry dish.
Where Schaefer’s plating was fine-dining precious, the new presentations are far messier. Even delicate agnolotti, a jumble of burrata-filled pockets splattered with mild pesto, appear as if they were slung by a short-order cook. Succulent sturgeon—yes, the meatmeister also does fish—arrives drowning in a sea of radishes, horseradish crème fraîche and beets.
Still, some misguided fanfare remains. A whole roasted chicken for two, which takes (as our waiter warned) some time to prepare, arrives drawn and quartered on an enormous platter. Though it’s a pedigreed Four Story Hill Farm bird, it’s not worth the wait, or the $55. Though the breast meat isn’t particularly full-flavored or juicy, the accompanying veggie and starch—mac and cheese with pork rinds, braised Tuscan kale with diced bacon and thigh meat—would be reasons to order this dish if they weren’t already available as sides.
The diner-style desserts, leaving Europe behind, are more of a match for the burger than the rest of the menu. Still, they’re so darn nostalgic—a chewy blondie anchors an indulgent pecan-caramel sundae, house-made coconut-caramel cookies (remember Girl Scout Samoas?) are crumbled into a deluxe banana pudding parfait, and the cinnamon-sugared apple fritters do taste like Christmas (as the waiter suggested)—only a grinch (or a French pastry chef) could resist them.