511 East 5th Street, New York NY 10009 (b/n Avenues A and B; map); 212-687-3641; goattownnyc.com
Service: Refreshingly friendly, if unevenly paced
Setting: Oyster bar meets barn meets subway platform; small and modern-funky
Compare It To: General Greene, Marlowe & Sons, Walter Foods
Must-Haves: Burger, sauteed squid
Cost: $8-13 apps, $18-24 mains
There are any number of reasons to go to Goat Town, the new East Village restaurant from the folks behind Brooklyn's General Greene—if you're in the neighborhood.
It's be a nice spot for a date, or a long chatty dinner with a friend, or few oysters and a drink. For an unusual cocktail (lacking a liquor license, the Goat Town's are crafted entirely of wines, beers, and wine-based aperitifs and digestifs) or a very drinkable glass of the $7 house Cotes du Rhone. Come summer, it's easy to imagine the back garden-to-be will be an exceedingly pleasant place for a beer.
And the food, for the most part, is quite enjoyable. A meal of bread crumb-topped sauteed squid and crisp-skinned roast chicken, or a shared plate of chicken liver mousse followed up with a burger, with maybe a scoop of salted caramel ice cream for dessert are meals I'd eat again. I just don't know that there's any reason to go to Goat Town to get them.
In many locations in the city, Goat Town would be a real find: a reliable, friendly neighborhood restaurant serving some French, some American bistro fare. But in a corner of Manhattan with such a vibrant and ecclectic restaurant scene, Goat Town doesn't do all that much to stand out; and the entree prices—$18-24—just don't seem justified. There are plenty of good meals in the East Village for under $20. A thirty-dollar dinner needs to be a great one.
The space is designed from mostly reclaimed materials by Evan and Oliver Haslegrave, whose look you might recognize from Motorino, Paulie Gee's, and Elsa. They've got that modern-vintage Brooklyn look down; reclaimed furniture, rough wood, funky touches. Here, we don't quite know what to call it: oyster bar meets '50s subway meets ranch? It's an attractive joint, though the booths—made of strange tiled benches so deeply curved that your bottom sinks lower than your legs—aren't exactly what one would call comfortable.
Even in the absence of hard liquor, "The Goat Town" ($9)—Cardamaro and Carpano Antica vermouth, plus lemon, Muscadet, and red wine—was quite impressive, more complex than you might guess given the lack of hard liquor. Sweet but balanced by bitter elements, it was something like a winter sangria, though the wine didn't figure quite as prominently.
We'd stop back in for that and a plate of sauteed squid ($12); the slim rings and tentacles maintain a tender bite, enlivened by lemon and parsley. It's a pretty expected combination and was served a little cool, but made a bit more exciting by crunchy mustard bread crumbs.
Other apps worth having? The Kale Waldorf ($9) is better than any traditional celery-based Waldorf salad, with crisp apples, well-distributed walnuts and raisins, and a dressing that's admittedly mayonnaise-y but not too heavily applied. One part American indulgence, one part happy locavore. And the chicken liver mousse , served with cornichons, grainy mustard, and (not quite enough) sourdough toast, is very well done: boozy and a little sweet, but with a pronounced liver taste.
Unfortunately, some of their more promising-sounding counterparts didn't fare quite as well. Goat meatballs ($11), the only instance of the namesake animal on the menu, were dramatically underseasoned; they tasted of goat for the first moment in the mouth, but as you kept chewing, the flavor fell flat. The paired sauces didn't do much to add interest. A steak tartar ($12) similarly needed salt and acid—more capers and pickles would've helped. (It also had bits of connective tissue in it, as if the beef weren't quite trimmed properly.)
True to its modern bistro leanings, Goat Town has a burger on the menu, and it's a great one ($14). Made with ground beef from Creekstone Farms, it was cooked a good bit past the requested medium rare, but was still plenty juicy and flavorful, amply seasoned and improved by a fully melted blanket of white cheddar (blue and Gruyere are also available). We didn't think it needed the "house sauce," a vinegary mayo, served on the side. The skin-on fries are well-salted and have a good potato taste, but they were a bit limp and a bit cool by the time they got to the table.
Timing and heat seemed like an issue elsewhere, too; like the squid appetizer, the roast vegetables ($6; tasty, if unremarkable) weren't all heated through.
Of the other entrees, the best-executed was a pan-roasted baby chicken ($18)—super-crisp, well-seasoned skin, moist meat both white and dark—though we'd expect a nearly twenty-dollar plate of poultry to be either larger or more original or both. Served over the same roasted vegetables, it's the dish that best represented our overall impression of the restaurant: solidly executed, but somewhat staid. The kind of dish you'd be proud to make at home on a weeknight, but seems a bit underwhelming at a restaurant. A Grilled Berkshire pork chop ($24) was similarly enjoyable, but not remarkable—a bit drier than it should have been. The sauteed arctic char ($22) was a better bet, sporting a fantastic crisp skin smothered in a nicely pungent rouille that flavored the fennel, potato, and leeks beneath; that said, given the softness of the fatty fish, a bit more textural contrast wouldn't have hurt.
Desserts followed a similar spread of homey, tasty, and slightly puzzling. A chocolate torte ($9) was appealingly dense and packed a chocolate punch; the crème fraiche with it seemed an odd pairing (We don't like super-sweet whipped cream, either, but this strayed too far into sour territory). A cookie plate ($9) featured excellent pecan sandies, nicely salty chocolate chip cookies, and an enormous, unwieldy lavender-scented meringue. Though the pineapple sorbet in the pineapple knickerbocker glory ($10) was tart and refreshing, the promised burnt honey ice cream was nowhere to be found—or just so overwhelmed by the pineapple thatwe couldn't find it. A house-made salted caramel ice cream ($6), if not quite as tongue-coatingly rich as ice cream can be, had just the right sweet-salty balance; it was the first dish to go.
The General Greene, the Goat Town owners' other restaurant, offers a few clues as to where there's room for improvement. There, entrees are a bit more original, with a slight but not pronounced Southern bent; prices are lower across the board; desserts are large, homey, and irresistible.
There are no real misses on this menu, though some plates could certainly be improved; there are quite a few dishes we enjoyed to the last bite; and service is friendly, casual, and eager to please—not always the case in this sort of young restaurant. The strength of the drinks and that burger might have us come back. But otherwise, we were left a bit wanting.
At Goat Town the menu reads like the greatest hits of bistro food. One of each type of major protein—chicken, steak, pork chop, salmon—in this case char—a burger, tartare, calamari. Dishes that, like the LP's spinning on the soundtrack and the reclaimed decor are good, reliable, but unmistakably old. It left us asking, where's the spark?