There are many different paths to nirvana in the world of restaurant cooking, but for the purposes of this review, let me posit just two. You can do what ambitious young professionals have done for years in places like New York and Paris, which is to hire on at one of the town’s glamorous establishments (a restaurant being no different, in this sense, from a law firm or bank) and work your way slowly, through inexorable hardship and drudgery, to the top. Or, after a period of apprenticeship, you can set up shop in a raffish, out-of-the-way neighborhood, throw up a few random though heartfelt decorations on the walls, light your stove, and hope you get noticed. Both approaches have their pitfalls and rewards, and each represents a distinct philosophy. It’s the difference between stability on one hand and freedom of expression on the other. Or, put another way, it’s the difference between cooking what you think people might want to eat and cooking what you yourself might find delicious.
At his modestly sized, discreetly satisfying new restaurant in Chelsea called Trestle on Tenth, the chef and owner, Ralf Kuettel, indulges his particular tastes to an almost extreme degree. In the manner of other homegrown gourmet outposts around town, the restaurant occupies a utilitarian, brick-walled space, with a snug, boxy bar in the front of the room and a small garden out back, where you can dine under the shade of cherry and locust trees. The tabletops in the dining room are made of unadorned dark wood, and the row of pendulum lamps hanging from the ceiling look like they’ve been affixed there by Kuettel himself using a somewhat erratic staple gun. Kuettel grew up in Zurich, and it’s his mellifluous accented voice you hear on the restaurant’s answering machine. And it’s his particular brand of earthy, down-home cooking on the menu, like “pizokle” (small, gnocchi-like dumplings) drizzled with melted Gruyère, crépinettes made with braised pork shoulder, and servings of knobbly veal kidneys doused in a creamy sauce made with Trappist ale.
If this kind of robust grub sounds a little heavy for this time of year, that’s because it is. But this is Kuettel’s establishment, and that’s how Kuettel likes it. Among the first appetizers to hit our table were copious platters of cheeses (mostly Swiss) and cured meats (speck, soppressata), a toss of Boston lettuce drizzled with a nice buttermilk dressing and many salty nuggets of bacon (good), and a generous slab of oxtail-and-pig’s-foot terrine seized in a pinkish, overly rubbery gelée (not so good). There are also servings of frog’s legs (sautéed with tarragon and garnished with a tangle of frisée), a small, cooling block of arctic char cured with dill, and a delicate but slightly bland cauliflower soup flavored with chervil. The best item on the appetizer menu by far, however, is the pork crépinette, which is composed of pulled pork shoulder, savoy cabbage and spices, bound together in a fat little package, propped on a mound of spinach, and finished with a rich pork reduction.
If you wish to continue on with your pork binge (and I did), you can follow your crépinette with a toasty pork sandwich (served at lunchtime, with horseradish mayonnaise, sauerkraut, and melted Gruyère) or the thick, bone-in roasted pork loin, served with a mess of spindly, caramelized Greenmarket carrots. At lunchtime, there’s also a respectable cut of liver (with caramelized onions), although true offal aficionados will probably want to sample the kidneys (dinner only), which are authentically chewy, almost to the point of crunchiness, and bolstered with a helping of Swiss potatoes rösti. For a more mainstream meat-eating experience, there’s a sirloin steak (tepid on the evening I sampled it), a very good saddle of lamb (wrapped in a salty layer of fat and served in little medallions infused with deposits of rosemary), and veal breast (not on the menu on my last visit) stuffed with a savory mash of spinach, mushrooms, and ground veal, baked to a pleasing, fatty sizzle, and cut into large, farmhouse portions big enough for two.
Kuettel spent time working at Union Square Cafe, so he’s fairly adept at bringing out the essential goodness of these hearty ingredients. When he tries his hand at lighter recipes, however, things tend to go awry. Except for the arctic char, which requires no cooking at all, I never had a decent seafood dish on any of my visits to Trestle on Tenth. The branzino I sampled one evening was roasted well enough (and dutifully stuffed with slices of lemon and copious amounts of fennel), but the fish itself tasted like pretty much any other fish. On another night, a perfectly decent cut of monkfish was drowned in a sea of soupy tomatoes and was also undercooked. Salmon, the traditional refuge of hearty non-seafood specialists, is presented in a wan little roll and garnished with a spectacularly bland combination of lentil sprouts and shavings of raw horseradish. For a lighter dinner, your best option is the tender, crispy-skinned roasted chicken breast, which is cut lengthwise and served with a cup or two of consommé mingled with a selection of fresh summer vegetables.