Of course, Keith McNally didn’t actually invent those decorative (though little-used) multitiered boiled-egg holders that now grace the bar at any number of fake brasseries around town. He didn’t actually invent the magazine rack, either, or the pewter bar, or crisp frites, thin-cut and served twirled in a paper cone in a certain uniformly satisfying, stylish sort of way. He wasn’t the first person to serve good food at one in the morning, or to court celebrities slavishly and effectively, or to cover the walls of his restaurants with cloudy mirrors and yards of brass railing, just like back in gay old Paris. He was, however, the first restaurateur in town to cobble these elements together and elevate them to a kind of art form. The Zeitgeist he created with Odeon and continued with Balthazar and Pastis is now as firmly entrenched in the minds of New York diners as the one André Soltner brought with him from France five decades ago, and if you don’t believe me, go down to his latest venture, called Schiller’s Liquor Bar, on the Lower East Side, and try to get yourself a table after eight o’clock.
Schiller’s, which opened not long ago on the corner of Rivington and Norfolk streets, is a low-rent, willfully unfussy version of what a few of my dining friends have come to call “McNally Land.” The squat corner space is a former drugstore that McNally and his designers have remodeled in a self-consciously rusticated, downtown sort of way. The façade, and much of the interior, has been plastered with white subway tiles, which make the restaurant look less like a grand fin de siècle brasserie than a not-so-grand Russian bath house. There are tile floors, walls of smoky mirrors, and, of course, a pewter bar decorated with a little tower of lonely, uneaten boiled eggs. There are weird bathrooms downstairs in which you can wash your hands in sluicelike unisex troughs, and a few cramped booths upstairs where you can sit on decorative, though exceedingly uncomfortable, park benches and eat your cone of crisp, uniformly satisfying McNally Land frites, while contemplating the boisterous, uniformly antic McNally Land crowd.
Although Schiller’s lacks the grandeur of Balthazar and the glitzy coziness of Pastis, the food (as overseen by Balthazar chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson) is predictably competent in a homey, almost threadbare kind of way. The menu reads like a compendium of dependable cheap eats from around the globe (oyster po’ boys, lamb curry, banana splits), with a few timeless McNally Land favorites (moules with saffron, fried calamari, steak-frites) thrown in. The first thing to arrive at our cramped little table was a kind of tapas sampler of vegetable salads (pickled beets, green beans, etc.), the best of which was made with chickpeas spiced with crushed flakes of red pepper. The more standard appetizers were forgettable, with the exception of the bread salad (folded with tomatoes and shavings of fennel), a crock of standard-issue McNally Land French onion soup, and a helping of finely chopped liver (called “chopped liver mousse”) flavored with caramelized onions and bits of honey-soaked walnuts, and served in the proper uptown style, with toast points.
On my second visit to Schiller’s, I ignored the appetizers altogether and ordered the oyster po’ boy for the table (served on a butcher board with commendably fresh, crisp oysters and homemade tartar sauce), plus the dense, toasty Cuban sandwich, which contains satisfying amounts of ham, pulled roast pork, and plenty of pickles. McNally has a fondness for the retro comfort foods of his homeland, and the one to order here is the Welsh rarebit, which is served on thick, chewy wedges of toast, topped with melted Cheddar, a crumbling of Stilton, and slices of roasted tomato. There are several serviceable (and at $11, modestly priced) pasta-style creations, too, like gnocchi served in a kind of griddle with a pesto sauce, and a simple al dente bowl of spaghetti (“cacio e pepe”) mixed with cracked pepper, spinach, and pecorino. Best of all, though, is a bowl of rigatoni in a mildly creamy tomato sauce with chunks of sweetly spicy Italian sausage.
This food is presented by a cheery wait staff dressed in dated, suggestively torn, Flashdance-style SCHILLER’S T-shirts, although by the time the entrées rolled around, the crowd noise was so intense that I was reduced to shouting in the servers’ ears and communicating with hand signals. I managed to order a helping of nicely battered fish and chips (fresh cod and hake, with malt vinegar for the chips), plus two pork chops flavored with bits of garlic and sautéed onions. The classic steak-frites I sampled were a little wan by McNally Land standards, as was the slim chicken paillard, which seemed to have been conceived explicitly for starving runway models. A better poultry alternative is the rotisserie chicken, cooked with a layer of onions and herbs under its crispy skin. The lamb curry (with basmati rice and caramelized onions) is equally satisfying, as were the daily specials I sampled, like sausages and sauerkraut (served Wednesdays) and a hefty helping of wienerschnitzel (Thursdays) served with butter-soaked spaetzle.
The wine options at Schiller’s are divided into categories called “cheap,” “decent,” and “good.” Even the “good” option is relatively cheap (at $6 per glass), although its effect is diminished by the glasses, which are the size of miserly egg cups. There are plenty of authentic egg dishes available at Schiller’s, however, and the time to have them is at brunch, when the antic nighttime hordes melt away and the restaurant reverts to a kind of neighborhood joint. One afternoon, I enjoyed a decent rendition of huevos rancheros and also a fine example of the old New Orleans dish eggs Hussard, garnished with ham, tomatoes, and a delicious though lethal mixture of bordelaise and hollandaise sauces. There are lethal desserts available, too, but with the exception of a chewy, gingery wheel of the great British dessert sticky toffee pudding and a fine apple crumble, they’re mostly rudimentary comfort-food knockoffs like banana splits (it tastes like a banana split) and chocolate layer cake (it tastes like chocolate layer cake). If those items don’t do the trick, then you can always take refuge in the stolidly professional crème brûlée, which tastes like (very good) crème brûlée, and is to McNally Land what the hot dog is to Coney Island.