116 E. 16th
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 254-1600
Hours: lunch: Monday - Sunday: 12 noon to 2:30 pm dinner: Monday - Thursday: 5:30 pm to 11 pm Friday and Saturday: 5:30 pm to 12 midnight Sunday: 5:30 pm to 10 pm
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: Erik Ramirez
Area: Union Square
It’s always interesting for me to experience a restaurant and then read other critics’ assessments of the same places. Sometimes we’re on the same page, other times it seems we were dining at completely different restaurants. With respect to Irving Mill, curiously, certain reviewers have taken to casting this perfectly lovely restaurant in a veil of negativity, discounting much of what the owners have worked quite hard to create as some sort of less successful imitation of Gramercy Tavern. From where I sit, I don’t think that’s very fair. Now, certainly I see some similarities between GT and Irving Mill. They’re both big, festive, seasonal American restaurants with that elegant but earthy style of décor. They both also offer wonderful amounts of hospitality, and they’re both split in two, with a bar up front and a dining room in the rear. My question is: So what? Why get your undies all in a bunch? I don’t get it. I mean, what isn’t derivative these days? Name one restaurant that’s original down to its core and you’re better than me. I’d say 85% of the restaurants that open are some variation on a proven formula of the Gramercy Tavern/Union Square/Savoy/Greenmarket variety. Does this make them any less deserving of attention or praise? I think not. You judge each restaurant on what they bring to the table (excuse the pun), and you look for the originality in the details of the imitation. And then you decide. After several meals at Irving Mill, I may have a few quibbles with some of the food, but the overall presentation, concept, and operation of the restaurant, in my opinion, is quite a wonderful and impressive addition to the restaurant scene.
Irving Mill, as you probably know by now, is the reincarnation of Candella, a restaurant that after 12 years was in need of refreshment. To revive the restaurant, Sue Riva, along with her partners Mario and Sergio Riva (she’s married to Mario, and Sergio and Mario are brothers) decided to replace it with a striking new neighborhood place that would reflect a more contemporary theme—Greenmarket-driven fare. To execute their vision, they partnered with a protégé of Tom Colicchio, executive chef and partner Johnny Schaefer. Nice choice.
To invigorate the décor, Sergio redesigned the space, banishing all remnants of its former dark, candle-lit, Gothic interior. After a complete demolition, Irving Mill bears no resemblance to its former self. It’s light and airy in the manner of a countryside inn, with double-height wood-beamed ceilings, ochre walls hung with antique prints and vintage photographs, and sturdy farmhouse cabinetry housing cutlery and stemware. The dining room is set with U-shaped banquettes etched with the words to Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. While difficult to read, these make larger group dining very comfortable. More intimate tables for two along a wall of banquettes make the restaurant very suitable for dates as well. Aside from the comfortable and well-spaced seating, one of my favorite qualities of the restaurant is that the acoustics make this a place that does not require shouting or text messaging to communicate with tablemates. I kinda like that.
In the center of the room, a century-old millstone table separates the dining room from the anterior Tap Room—a festive and convivial barroom with tables and high-tops reserved for walk-ins. At the moment, the space is all dressed up for the holidays, with wrought iron chandeliers wrapped in fresh green boughs of pine, and library-styled wall sconces tied with cherry-red velvet ribbon. The effect is a restaurant that beckons even from the street, with its warm golden glow, festive holiday dress, and attractive post-work crowd lingering at the bar. Speaking of that bar, I recommend the Autumn Spiced Bourbon ($9), a cocktail made from “buttered bourbon”—a mix of brown butter and a big tub of bourbon—and spiced simple syrup. It’s a potent winter warmer that will melt the frost from your toes and warm you right up (to your neighbors even).
Much of Schaefer’s hearty seasonal menu does the same. Take his rabbit ragout ($24), for instance: a generous amount of tender meat on the bone stewed with black olives, garlic sausage, and roasted shallots. The ragout is rustic and peasant-like, but somehow still delicate, perhaps because the rabbit jus is so surprisingly silky and has so much depth of flavor. In some ways, it tastes like it was made in Burgundy and shipped over here, or like Johnny has kidnapped a grandma from somewhere in France and transported her to his kitchen with one job only—make me rabbit stew! It’s deliciously homey, and one of my favorite dishes on his menu. Others come close. Every time I have eaten at Irving Mill I’ve had to have the grilled quail ($16), even though I generally like to order new things rather than repeat. But the quail is deserving of seconds. It’s juicy and gamey, and served split down the middle on a mound of toothy stone-ground cheddar grits spiced up with smoked paprika. My only suggestion would be to offer the option to do this as an entrée with two birds because one just is not enough.
The chicken liver crostini ($12) falls into this category of “more, please” as well. If you’re a fan of chopped liver, you won’t want to miss it. Served already slathered on wide slices of country bread, it’s creamy but with some texture, and it’s got that rich livery unctuous flavor happening. But it gets a first class upgrade from its garnish—crisped bacon, cooked quince, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar that cuts the fat just the right amount. Another favorite was the pickled sardines ($12), plated in a long thin strip layered with roasted beets, blanched fingerling potatoes, plump black olives, and a few little dots of saffron aioli that are not really even necessary; the flavors are bright and punchy enough on their own. I’d love to see all the ingredients of this dish in a sandwich at lunch, with an egg on top. Yum.
Other appetizers are not quite as successful. The pretty handmade cauliflower ravioli ($15) didn’t have enough personality. While I thought the sauce of capers and red onion would wake up the Parmesan and hazelnuts, I really didn’t find this dish all that interesting. It lacked that last pinch of zip. Ditto the grilled baby octopus ($15), which while textbook correct—the octopus was tender and marked by a good smoky char, its flavors were rather ordinary despite a supporting cast that included roasted pepper caponata, shaved fennel and preserved lemon. It just didn’t sing. Indeed, if there’s a weakness to the cooking, it’s that sometimes that one last element is missing from a dish that would make it really pop.
And this is surprising to me considering so many other dishes do. Schaefer’s striped bass ($26) was wildly good—two pieces of fish each the size of a deck of cards, seared off so they’re both buttery and golden, resting on a mound of spinach, with fingerling potatoes, and a roasted pepper and rosemary vinaigrette ($26). Arctic char is given an earthy dose of meaty flavor with a base of lentils, savoy cabbage, cipollini onions and a red wine jus ($26). I also loved his Atlantic cod ($28)—plated with a sort of seasonal hash of buttery roasted brussel sprouts, apple cider, and carrots—which was so moist that the fish kept slipping down off of my fork and missing my mouth. Eventually I got it.
Schaefer balances out his choice of four fish dishes with four meat options, including short ribs braised down in stout with farro, roasted tomatoes, and marrow, and a sharp slap of horseradish cream ($28), and a spiced Muscovy breast that’s pink and plump with flavor, with a side of quinoa and Swiss chard dressed with Meyer lemon, a nice change from the usual duck and fruit accompaniments. Indeed, here Schaefer shows that he can take it to the next level by bringing together flavors like these.
Matching the food is a wine list that offers 10 choices by the glass and an international list by the bottle that includes a Spanish wine that I’m loving at the moment— the Joan d'Anguera "L'Argata" Montsant ($48). There’s also a fun selection of beers like Dogfish Head (Delaware), Six Points (Brooklyn), and Spaten Lager (Munich). Complementing the back of the house is a team of servers that do fine work to provide careful service that honors the amount effort going on in the kitchen.
Desserts ($9) by pastry chef Colleen Grapes can be very good, but they can also be uneven. A pear crisp one night was dry and tasted more like it was topped with dry granola than a buttery crumble, and the gingerbread cake was rather bland for a spiced cake. However, the peanut butter parfait, a tall sundae glass layered with crunchy meringue, peanut butter brittle and milk chocolate caramel is a lot of fun, and it unleashes the kid inside all of us. Her chocolate bread pudding with bourbon-roasted bananas and cinnamon anglaise is as decadent as it sounds, but my favorite is a panna cotta made from Greek yogurt topped with stewed quince, apricots and pistachios, drizzled with rose water. It’s very elegant and slightly exotic, and I just loved the tang and the texture from the yogurt against the nuts and the rosewater. Some nights your petits fours are bourbon butter chocolate chip cookies, made from the butter solids collected form the buttered bourbon cocktail at the bar. Cookies that give you a buzz? Talk about Happy Holidays.
I realize there’s going to be plenty more to be said about Irving Mill. Opinions in this town, when it comes to food (and just about anything, come to think of it), run strong. My feeling is that at Irving Mill, you’ll find a beautiful restaurant where you’ll feel so comfortable you’ll most probably linger on well after dessert and probably until the staff starts to pack up to leave. You’ll be met by exquisite service that’s there when you need it and gone when you don’t. (There’s no incessant explaining or that patronizing “How are we enjoying our water?” going on here.) And as for the food, I think you’ll be quite pleased. Schaefer’s menu has a few little bumps but they’re small and they will smooth out over time. The overall effect is seasonal, soulful food that you’re gonna really enjoy. And if you finish dinner, turn to your dining partner and say Irving Mill is my new favorite next to Gramercy Tavern, well, that would be just fine, too.
Review By: Andrea Strong