If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Danny Meyer should find a good deal to be flattered about at Irving Mill, a new restaurant in his old Union Square neighborhood. Not very long ago, the tall, gothically imposing space on East 16th Street housed a mostly deserted New American establishment called Candela. Now bales of hay and a wooden trough filled with pomegranates grace the entrance. The interior is covered in folksy shades of brown (brown rafters, brown wood floors, brownish dried-flower arrangements) and infused with the warm sense of bonhomie Meyer has cultivated so successfully in so many of his restaurants. An ancient millstone in the center of the room acts alternately as a bar and a platform for a decorative collection of gourds. The relentlessly mirthful waiters sport jaunty suspenders. Pink-cheeked locals swill frosty microbrews at the Tap Room up front, and a quick scan of the menu reveals a familiar multitude of rustic country favorites, like short ribs, braised rabbit, and stone-ground grits.
The proprietors of Irving Mill also ran the previous, doomed restaurant in this space, and they seem to have implemented these radical changes for various reasons. The most obvious of these is that everybody else is doing it. As has been pointed out in this column, the casually elegant market-based style popularized at Danny Meyer establishments like the Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern is the dominant fine-dining motif of our day. Irving Mill’s owners have even partnered with John Schaefer, who was the executive chef at Gramercy Tavern before Meyer chose someone else to replace Tom Colicchio. Schaefer’s presence makes Irving Mill feel, to an almost eerie degree, like an oversize doppelgänger of the more famous restaurant several blocks north. The menu is worthy and competent without being particularly daring or new. The patrons are wholesome, even tweedy, in a stolid, Martha Stewart sort of way. The main difference, aside from the sheer size of the space, is the prices (no entrée is over $30), which are comparatively modest. Let’s call it Gramercy Tavern Lite.
Everything about Irving Mill seems carefully calculated to please. Excitement is another matter. In contrast to the bountiful, barnyard-theme décor (there’s a giant millstone gear on the wall and many pictures of ducks and pigs), the portions tend to be on the small side, and there’s a conspicuous thinness of flavor to some of the food, especially early in the meal. My wife’s hearty-sounding celery-root chowder lacked a creamy, buttery kick, and my bowl of New Zealand cockles was not much more than a wan broth spiked with random nuggets of chorizo. The pastas (penne lightly flavored with romesco sauce, Parmesan cheese, and capers; a row of ravioli sprinkled with hazelnuts and stuffed with Parmesan) are competent but don’t make a lasting impression. My favorite appetizer was the grilled quail, which comes with a helping of rich Cheddar grits flavored with smoked paprika. There was only one of the delicious little birds on the plate, however, and it took about 30 seconds to eat.
Not that the light eaters at my table were complaining. Having suffered through the relentless early-winter restaurant barrage of pork belly, braised stews, and venison chops, my wife was relieved to note that Schaefer devotes a considerable amount of his energy to fish. Halibut, arctic char, cod, monkfish, and striped bass all showed up among the entrées, in various styles and formulations. My neighbor’s block of fresh halibut was plated, in a pleasing way, with kale and a line of quinoa sweetened with chopped carrots. The monkfish is cut in little wheels, wrapped with pancetta, and served with a stout mash of tomatoes, collard greens, and cranberry beans. And if you order the seared cod, it comes with toasted Brussels sprouts and a seasonally appropriate dash of apple butter. The best of these rustic seafood interpretations, however, is the arctic char, which Schaefer roasts with the crispy skin intact and sets over a hearty mixture of lentils, Savoy cabbage, sweet cipollini onions, and speck, all mingled together in a rich red-wine reduction.
On the other hand, my friend the pork snob won’t be rushing back to Irving Mill anytime soon. His cabbage-dressed pork chop was presliced (“A man likes to cut his own pork chop,” he said in a grave basso profundo), a little too dry, and only slightly larger than a good-size lamb chop. Among the other hefty winter dishes, no one had anything too terrible to say about the tender, properly gamy New Zealand venison (available, with chestnuts, off the $54 tasting menu), or the tasty if slightly diminutive portion of crackly skinned Muscovy duck. The house rendition of beef short ribs is miniature, too, but the rib you get is densely flavorful (it’s braised in stout), with a rich mixture of farro, tomatoes, and bone marrow, and a decorative topping of horseradish cream. The chef’s real winter specialty, however, is the rabbit ragout, which he simmers, bones and all, with shallots, black olives, and bits of garlic sausage and dunks over a buttery potato purée.
Seven weeks is a short time in the life of any business endeavor, but judging from the traffic at Irving Mill, the owners’ eager conversion to the warm and fuzzy Danny Meyer handbook seems to be paying off. “It looks like parents’ night in here,” one of my chef friends observed, as we surveyed the sea of semi-youthful faces, mixed, here and there, with elders in their coats and ties gruffly paying the bill. Whether they enjoyed their desserts is hard to tell. The people at my table certainly didn’t. They grimly pushed aside segments of half-dry gingerbread with mascarpone cheese and kumquats, a rock-hard muffin creation made with chocolate chips and bananas, and chocolate mousse spiked, strangely, with black-currant tea. Your safest bet is the pistachio semifreddo, or the peanut-butter-and-chocolate parfait feathered with barely decipherable bits of peanut brittle. Can you get a better dessert at Gramercy Tavern? Yes, you can. But as Mr. Meyer will tell you, Haute Barnyard dining isn’t a fringe phenomenon anymore. It’s a mass revolution, and the people must be fed.