If it’s mid-April, it’s prime time for ramps and stinging nettles at Patio Dining, the current and most compelling incarnation of the funky East Village restaurant formerly known as Mugsy’s Chow Chow. Surveying the nondescript storefront with its open kitchen the size of an office cubicle, you don’t expect to find an inspired chef like Sara Jenkins tweaking her seasonal menu daily to make each successive visit seem like dinner at a friend’s house – if that friend grew up in a food-obsessed family in Tuscany (as Jenkins did) and spent her free time chatting up farmers at the Greenmarket.
You get the feeling that if the farmers’ market didn’t exist, Jenkins would scrounge around the city’s parks and empty lots like foraging expert “Wildman” Steve Brill or sneak into community gardens to snip edible weeds for salad greens. Nearly every dish (she only does eight or nine a night) benefits from her intrepid urban hunting and gathering, be it at Union Square for green garlic, Murray’s for a tangy blue goat cheese, or DiPalo’s for an obscure extra-virgin olive oil that she pours over fennel pollen or za’atar and sends to the table in a ceramic soap dish along with crusty bread.
The short, handwritten menu drops more names than Cindy Adams: The pork is Niman Ranch, the free-range veal is Skate Creek Farm, the butter is Ronnybrook, and the vegetables are from Satur Farms, the North Fork homestead of chef Eberhard Müller and his wife, Paulette. Somehow, in this humble context, the clichéd Chez Panissean custom of sourcing everything is more endearing than pretentious: For Jenkins, good cooking depends on good ingredients, and she likes to share the credit.
Within a simple framework of a nightly soup, a salad or two, a pair of pastas, and a choice of meat or fish, Jenkins cannily spotlights the current crop of local produce. Which means that instead of the standard caprese salad – available at cookie-cutter trattorias everywhere – she’ll pair her oozing buffalo mozzarella with sautéed pea shoots or seared ramps, those potent wild onions that also turn up as a side dish under a dollop of lemony homemade mayonnaise. Pea shoots are just as adaptable, adding a super-fresh spring flavor and double pea whammy to split-pea soup, where they float on a crispy raft of fried Parmesan. One evening, dark-green stinging-nettle leaves make a cameo appearance in deliciously earthy white-bean soup; a few nights later, they’re a welcome bit of greenery in an outlandishly rich and creamy Parmesan sauce for perfectly al dente pennette.If you’re from the Carmine’s school of pasta portioning, Patio’s helpings might seem stingy. But Jenkins apportions them to the more refined rules of the Italian table, where they’re meant as a first or middle course. And her sauces, like sage-infused rabbit ragù or a springy mix of beet greens, black olives, and toasted garlic, are packed with flavor (and in many cases, butter, which is better in small, luxurious doses).
When Jenkins is serving pork steak, order it: Ours was seared outside, juicy inside, and showered with dark, nutty morels. Tender veal stew is surprisingly flavorful, owing to the meat’s free-range pedigree, and comes with the same fingerlings and purple potatoes that Jenkins occasionally features as a vegetable side: steamed and soaked in butter, sea salt, and chives – truly superior spuds.
A jazzy improviser at the range, Jenkins rarely plays the same dish twice: So if you loved the crispy-skinned fillet of sea trout with bok choy and rice one night, on another visit you may be pleasantly surprised to find an equally tasty rendition of that expertly seared fillet crowned with citrus and reposing on an herbed-bulghur island in a sea of aromatic broth.
A plate of ripe cheeses is always available, and a dessert or two; Jenkins bakes the chocolate-almond cake and biscotti in-house. If you’d like a glass of wine, you’d better not be picky: There’s one red and one white, both Italian and food-friendly. But only six bottles on the concise list cost less than $50, and none less than $30, which doesn’t seem to jibe with the neighborhood, the casual service, or the cramped, spartan setting. A $220 Peter Michael Cabernet has its place, but we’re not sure this is it.
What this is, at least for the time being, is a unique showcase for an impulsive chef who hasn’t disappointed us yet. Mugsy’s endured some growing pains (and a succession of chefs) on the way to becoming Patio Dining, and we hope Jenkins, who’s been in New York three years and worked in as many restaurants, has finally settled down. Tomato season is on the way, and we can’t wait to see what she has in store.
Patio Dining, 31 Second Avenue (212-460-9171); dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $12; entrées, $12 to $22. All major credit cards.