I like to pretend that I’m not susceptible to suggestion but after reading a blurb about Irving Mill’s charcroute platter on Food & Wine’s blog earlier this month, I knew I’d have to seek it out.
I hadn’t paid much attention to this restaurant initially because I only have room in my mind for so many urban farmhouses. But after Ryan Skeen moved there from Resto, bringing my favorite salad of 2008 (so far) with him, I figured this meaty Alsatian hodgepodge would not suck.
And it didn’t. The only difficulty was in trying to determine how much food to order. Irving Mill has one of those menus scattered with bites, small plates, full on entrees and randomly placed boxes advertising things like a burger and this charcroute plate. How much does one get for $22 versus the $38 version?
I decided the smaller size could be an appetizer for two, and this was true, everything came in pairs. Perfect. If there had been three of us, it would’ve been all wrong and insufficient. Shared bites just aren’t enough sometimes.
Head cheese or terrine tete de cochon if you want it to sound nicer, ribs, boudin noir in slices, boudin blanc whole and breaded, fried pig’s feet are on the plate clockwise from the top. Though, I wouldn’t have predicted so, the crispy-tender ribs were the star. None of these items were boiled together as tradition dictates, so everything from the delicate weisswurst to the schnitzel-like feet kept their individual textures.
Accompaniments included grilled bread, violet mustard, grainy mustard and potato wedges with horseradish-spiked crème fraiche. I closed my eyes, pretended I had an astute palate and tried to detect floweriness in the burgundy-hued mustard. I liked the color, but nothing violet jumped out flavor-wise.
A few minutes after we took in the whole affair, a separate small bowl of pork bellies were hurried to our table. I think they initially forgot them and in the charcuterie frenzy, I hadn’t even noticed. Now that I look at the menu, the missing component is described as glazed pork shoulder but we definitely were given two, fat-striped squares of belly.
This is perfect restaurant food because cooking miniature versions of six meaty items is impractical from both financial and time standpoints. And I was able justify the gluttony because each porky treat is small and manageable.
So, my palate was useless for flavored mustard, but boy did the sauerkraut get into my system. James didn’t think it was particularly strong, but I wondered if the fermentation might’ve gone wild. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what tasted odd, not bad, but pungent. It was clearly the shredded cabbage, which was tart, salty, with undercurrents of mustiness. I initially thought urine, then changed my mind to festering genitals (not that I know that smell, first hand, of course). This wasn’t an unfamiliar odor, and I finally placed it: stinky tofu.
On the cheapy bus from Beijing to the Great Wall (hey, I was there this week last year) I started getting whiffs of what I thought was the stench of an unwashed human (once a similar smell assaulted me on the 5 to the Bronx Zoo and it was clearly attributable to a kid sitting next to me) or maybe a dead and decaying human. I was convinced it was human in some form, not animal. I finally realized that it was food, which made me feel a little better, and I totally got why they call it stinky tofu.
I just ate kim chee for lunch so I have no problem with fermented cabbage. I liked Irving Mill’s sauerkraut too. But I wonder if I was just having a supertaster moment and the dish wasn’t as strong as I perceived it to be because I don’t imagine the average diner goes for that sort of thing. Or maybe the average diner steers clear of charcroute, altogether.
Yes, there was other food. I ordered a lobster salad hoping for lightness to balance the starter. I do appreciate salads that go easy on the lettuce; the romaine is really only there to support the salinity of the sweet shellfish and mouth-popping caviar (which type, I have no idea). I could’ve done with an extra chunk of lobster, though. And just to make sure that pig parts appear in every possible place, there are thin rectangles of bacon tossed on top that I initially thought were some kind of vegetable chip. I’m glad it wasn’t crispy grilled eggplant.
I never eat macaroni and cheese because it just tastes like cheese and noodles. I totally don’t get the appeal. And yes, this tasted like cheese and noodles, but drier and sharper than usual. Oh, and those cracklings kind of changed my mind a bit.
The lamb cassoulet was not light and was not my pick. I did eat a slice of gamey, lightly spiced sausage, though.
The sundae was completely unnecessary. I got sucked in by the idea of ice cream slathered in gooey sauce, but really the confection was ordinary. The caramel drizzles were nearly imperceptible and the blondie was kind of hard. The cinnamon walnuts were the standout.
I like getting dismayed over ‘80s music wherever it plays. I guess because it means that I’m old. In a Paramus Outback Steakhouse, hearing The Cure tickles me a little. It somehow makes sense paired with a 22-ounce mug of Foster’s, but I’m weirded out by the same music when sipping a $14 organic apple cider from Normandy because it’s a bizarre melding of highbrow with ancient pop culture.
But no matter the setting, I always love it when "Age of Consent," my favorite New Order song, comes on (a live Arcade Fire version had popped onto my iPod the same day I dined at Irving Mill so it was a daily double). No, it’s not the most obscure tune yet it never fails to put me into a good state of mind. I would gladly eat headcheese to synth-pop again.
Irving Mill * 116 E. 16th Street, New York, NY