116 East 16th Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n Park Avenue South and Irving Place; map); 212-254-1600; irvingmill.com
Service: I only ate at the bar, and the bartenders were delightful, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable
Setting: A more laid-back Gramercy Tavern–like setting
Compare It To: Gramercy Tavern's tavern, Resto
Must-Haves: Charcroute Plate, burger, pork toast
Price: You can spend anywhere from $30 to a hundred bucks here for a very satisfying meal, depending on what you order
The new Irving Mill chef Ryan Skeen's sure-fire cooking equation is pork+salt+fat=serious deliciousness. And he'll get no argument from me on this score.
Skeen (aka "the Pork King") has landed at Irving Mill, the ambitious adult-oriented restaurant (you can converse with your dinner companions without screaming here—what a concept) that opened six months ago to almost universally poor reviews for both the food and the service. Enter Skeen, whose pork-centric menu at Resto blew me and everyone else away when he opened that barely-Belgian gastropub in April 2006. Anyone who adds fatback to his burger meat mixture is all right with me.
Skeen and Irving Mill's owners are trying to do something extremely difficult in these food-media-saturated and economically challenging times—convince serious eaters and the critics to give Irving Mill another chance less than six months after they found the initial incarnation wanting on almost every level. In football terms, it's literally another form of a pig and skin Hail Mary.
I greeted this gambit with arms wide open, ready to catch this culinary desperation heave, because I really liked the food at Resto, though I rarely went because I found the din unbearable. The idea of Skeen cooking at a restaurant where I could talk easily and eat pig in many forms had me squealing with anticipatory delight.
Irving Mill is divided into two sections, the bar area and the dining room. In the front of the restaurant there's an extremely comfortable bar, some tables in front of the bar, and, in pleasant weather, some outdoor tables. The dining room in the rear features lots of exposed beams, comfortable booths, and well-spaced separate tables. Think a poor man's Gramercy Tavern that takes itself a little less seriously.
Although there's a chalkboard list of bar nibbles, they are by no means insubstantial throwaways. In fact, it's on this list that I found many of the Irving Mill dishes I plan on returning for on a regular basis.
The salt and pepper pork ribs ($8) are full-size St. Louis–cut ribs from Niman Ranch that have been braised and deep-fried, then tossed in salt and pepper, soy sauce, and lime. These ribs have just enough fat left on them to make them easy to gnaw on. They have a lovely brown caramelized exterior, and once you bite through that, you find yourself in most tender pork circumstances.
If there is a tastier burger ($15 with fried potatoes) being served in New York, I haven't had the pleasure of meeting and eating it. Skeen mixes wet-aged flap beef, beef cheek, and, yes, some fatback and creates a wonderfully funky, almost gamey burger. At Resto he used hangar steak and brisket, and the result was a not-very-juicy but still flavorful burger. At Irving Mill the burger is juicy as hell and even more flavorful.
From Resto, Skeen has taken one of his most cardiologist-unfriendly menu items, pork toast ($9). They're little pork jowl croquettes that have been braised; chopped up with garlic, fine herbs, and shallots; put through a sheeter; frozen; breaded with tapioca starch; and then finally deep-fried. Do not try this at home.
Skeen's boudin blanc hot dog is done in by the sausage's mushy texture. It is missing the snap that a natural casing found on the best conventional hot dogs supplies. Not even this hot dog's grilled-bacon-and-chili-onion topping and hot mustard can rescue it.
To really experience Skeen's "praise the lard" cooking style in its most uninhibited form order his charcroute plate ($22/$38). It's a dazzling display of what one man's pork obsession and a ton of cooking technique collectively can produce. What's on it? Mini boudin blanc, mini boudin noir, crisp pig's feet, terrine tête de cochon, fried pork belly, glazed pork shoulder, pork ribs, pickled cabbage, fried potato. It's served with crème fraîche, violet mustard and whole-grain mustard. Even the small version is huge. It could easily be a meal for three serious eaters, and a mighty cheap meal at that.
Interestingly or curiously, Skeen's passion for fat and salt doesn't translate to his french fries. At Irving Mill, the fried potatoes (Skeen wisely doesn't call these potatoes frites, though even at Resto the frites were not world-class) are really quartered fingerling potatoes that are neither crisp nor delicious. I bet if they were twice-fried in lard or duck fat, all would be right with these spuds.
Roast chicken for two ($55) was made with an incomparably chickeny bird from Four Story Hills Farm. Even the white meat is ridiculously moist and flavorful (Skeen separates the legs from the rest of the bird when he roasts it). Unsurprisingly, the skin of this bird comes out a golden brown. Skeen really does know his way around fat in all its forms. Accompanying the chicken is a sizable portion of macaroni cheese topped with, you might have guessed, housemade pork rinds, along with some braised black kale, optionally flavored with bacon.
For dessert, which is totally unnecessary here, have the apple fritters. You might have guessed this already from their name, but they're fried. Icy cinnamon ice cream doesn't add much to the dessert, and the fritters' apple cider sauce makes the ice cream unnecessary. A banana cream parfait is sweet, only slightly gooey, and made crunchy by baked sweetened coconut. It must be noted that there is no pork in either of these desserts.
Praise the lard, Praise the lard! Ryan Skeen is back in a kitchen doing what he does best, creating plate after plate of serious pork-centric deliciousness. That you can now eat his food in the comfortable environs of Irving Mill merely adds another level of pleasure for serious eaters, who should find their way there at the earliest opportunity.
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