No one I know serves hominy for dinner. No one I know even craves it, really. Yet, every time I go to Cookshop, I order the fried spiced hominy before I even look at the rest of the menu. I don’t know if it’s because I enjoy popping these crunchy, chili-stoked kernels in my mouth so much that I wish they sold them at the movies instead of popcorn, or if I’m just stunned that chef Marc Meyer can take pasty, dehydrated, thick-skinned corn and turn it into this spunky, grab-it-by-the-handful treat.
Meyer says the inspiration for my favorite new snack was his love of corn nuts. Figures. Most everything about Cookshop is just as accessible and easy to get hooked on. The L-shaped dining room, which has been busy from the day it opened about a month ago, seems spartan at a glance (the wooden dining chairs are so rigid they defy a Shaker to remain seated more than 90 minutes). Yet Cookshop has the relaxing feel of a Soho loft’s eat-in kitchen. The lighting is soft and soothing, the varnished-oak ceiling emits a nice warm glow, and despite the absence of sound-absorbing fabric, you can actually hear your companions speak. The waiters move with confident, uncalculated ease—even their spiel is unforced. And you can’t be either under- or overdressed: No matter what you have on, someone else will be dressed similarly. Without fail, one person at every table I’ve dined with has proclaimed, “I like it here!” And unless you’re too uppity for a place where you can start your evening with a Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale, you’ll likely do the same.
Cookshop’s signature strength is Meyer’s straightforward, fusion-free focus on American cuisine. Unlike his equally infectious Five Points in Noho (he owns both restaurants with his wife, Vicki Freeman, and partner Chris Paraskevaides), Cookshop shuns Mediterranean accents in favor of what Meyer calls sustainable ingredients—humanely raised, growth-hormone-free products from local farmers and artisans—prepared with unexpected combinations of familiar, in-every-cupboard spices and flavors. Bluefish is no one’s favorite seafood. But cured in the imaginative brine of molasses, cinnamon, coriander, and cardamom, and then smoked, it becomes musky, sweet meat, enhanced by the scent of three kinds of grapes cut with the bitterness of arugula. Thyme proves a lovely counterpoint for the earthiness of marinated beets. Each shrimp beignet boasts an extra dash of garlic and onions. Duck livers are fried simply in seasoned flour, but a marinade of buttermilk gives them a rich, heady flavor.
Meyer’s entrées revel in an every-day-is-an-American-holiday kind of comforting exuberance. I’ve never had brisket like this. Not that I don’t love Mom’s, but she doesn’t smoke hers for 24 hours after packing it in a sugar, cumin, and paprika rub, or serve it with a luscious broth of onions, honey, and beer. Duck breasts glisten atop the juice of dried cherries and wheatberries. Pork loin is flash-grilled—the liquid formed by smoked-pear mustard and cider-braised cabbage does the rest. Chatham cod sits on a terrific chickpea stew. The odd but alluring aroma of green-olive-and-golden-raisin relish perfumes hickory-roasted halibut. Meyer developed a special vertical rotisserie for Cookshop. It’s like a Tilt-A-Whirl for game and poultry, producing dizzyingly good succulent baby chicken with a nice crackling skin, and a superb roasted rabbit, rubbed liberally with sage and garlic and served with a mustardy potato salad.
Right now, there’s no apple pie (hint, hint), but the desserts are still appropriately all-American. Lush maple flan comes with warm gingerbread. A brisk lemon-ginger ice sparkles in a bath of stewed cranberries. Roasted pears gently temper the intensity of a date turnover. Should you want overkill, there’s a hot-fudge sundae with pecan blondies and bourbon-spiked butterscotch, or a perfect brioche-bread pudding with caramel apples and cinnamon ice cream.
In the nineteenth century, cookshops were private homes that served food to locals. Eating at Cookshop gives you the opportunity to have that homey Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Passover dinner any day you like—without your relatives and their videos.