344 Bowery, New York NY 10012 (at Great Jones; map); 212-388-0148; thewrennyc.com
Service: Friendly if occasionally slow
Setting: Lively bar-restaurant (more restaurant than bar)
Compare It To: Wiflie and Nell
Must-Haves: Oxtail marmalade, fish and chips
Cost: Everything under $20
Grade: B+ (as pubby bar food goes)
And judging by the crowds that pack just about every one of these restaurants, there's plenty of room for more. Walking into Saxon + Parole a few weeks ago was the first time I was ever turned away from a restaurant's bar because there wasn't any room—the right call, as a single additional person could not possibly have shouldered her way in for a drink. And even at 6:00pm on a recent evening, The Wren was packed nearly to capacity with under-30s on their second or third pint.
It's already a drinking destination, to be sure. But would The Wren be a good place to grab a bite as well? We're already fans of the dressed-up bar food at Wilfie and Nell, the owners' previous bar-restaurant, so we had high hopes. What we found was a mix of solid bar food and a bit more, perhaps nothing worth traveling for, but more than good enough to line your belly after a few pints of ale—and gently priced, for the area.
There's a whole section of the little menu devoted to "Jars" (which we're seeing everywhere these days. Enough to do a "Things In Jars" roundup. Honestly, enough to do a "Things In Jars on the Bowery roundup). Of these, we best liked the oxtail marmalade ($7). It looks a bit stringy but it's fattier and juicier than it appears, hearty and meaty, amply salted and peppered; while it's not quite as luscious as oxtail can be, it's more than satisfying, like a pot roast dinner slathered on toast. The smoked trout pate ($6) was another decent spreader, a bit clumpier and not quite as creamy as we'd like it, but as flavorful as we could wish. Pickled beets ($4) were a lighter option, powerfully acidic but a little mushy to our taste (they're roasted with salt and dill before the pickling). The oxtail disappeared from our table first, but we'd eat any of them again.
We'd rather eat the pint of prawns ($14), though. Each shell-on prawn is brined first and then roasted—perfectly cooked, taut and snappy and not mushy in the slightest. They're seasoned with lemon zest and juice and plenty of Old Bay. Whether you like them depends on your tolerance for that spice blend. If you're down with Old Bay, you'll probably like these very much indeed. A cheaper snacking alternative, the fried aleppo pepper cauliflower ($5) is a decent-sized bowl whose veggies sport warm, roasty flavor, enlivened by the marriage of lemon and that aleppo heat.
In for a meal, not just a snack? The fish and chips ($16) are the can't-miss. The sizable pieces of skate are beer-battered (flour with Peak Organic beer) and fried to a golden hue, the batter as crunchy as the fish is steamy and moist. That batter's well-seasoned enough to bring out its own flavor as well as that of the fish, and though the creamy tartar sauce is nicely accented with pickles and capers, it's the kind of fish that's good enough it needs no accompaniment. Crunchy, well-browned fries are a suitable accompaniment, if not memorable themselves.
Other options? The briny bowl of cockles & mussels ($12), with generous cuts of bacon along with leeks and witte beer; and a heritage pork sausage sandwich ($11), made with an excellent snappy link from Los Paisanos in Brooklyn. Pickled fennel and burnt onion mustard dress it up just enough, each powerful in their own way but neither overwhelming the sausage. (The bread's a little awkward, but tasty enough that it's hard to mind.) Even the watercress on the side is thoughtfully oiled, salted, and peppered, showing the care given in the kitchen, even for this relatively simple fare.
There's nothing too novel at The Wren, to be sure. But novelty isn't generally what you're looking for after a few drinks. Belly-filling plates of fried food? Check. Hunger-killing sandwiches? That, too. What you'll find here is well-executed pub food at prices that, in this neighborhood, could easily have been higher across the board. Which, frankly, we quite appreciate.