According to The Oxford Companion to Food, Belgium’s culinary and spiritual identities can be divided along geographic lines. The Flemish in the north are “seen as diligent and determined go-getters,” while the French-speaking Walloons to the south “are generally held to be softer in outlook, more pleasure-loving, and more gastronomically inclined.” These two sides fuse neatly in the person of Resto chef Ryan Skeen; in fact, were a Belgian to sample Skeen’s toothsome fare while observing him flit about the place like a caffeinated track star, he might peg him as a sort of curious Belgian cross-species: the go-getting Walloon.
That Skeen hails not from Brussels or the Ardennes but from Portland, Oregon, doesn’t detract from the fact that Resto happens to be serving the best Belgian food in New York today. Which, no offense to Skeen, isn’t saying all that much: Other than the Petite Abeille and Le Pain Quotidien chainlets, the Pommes Frites French-fry shack and the lovably dated West Village bistro Café de Bruxelles, there’s not a lot of competition.
But that shouldn’t detract from Resto’s undeniable appeal either. With an American owner and chef and a refined Manhattan approach to food, Resto is Belgian in the same way that Momofuku Noodle Bar is Japanese or the Spotted Pig is English—which is to say, not slavishly but interpretively. And like those two restaurants, Resto achieves that rarest of combinations: expectations- exceeding, thoughtfully executed food in the sort of unpretentious surroundings that define the best kind of neighborhood restaurant.
Resto was born in part out of owner Christian Pappanicholas’s love of Belgian beer, and even though he wouldn’t admit it, there are elements of the gastropub in the restaurant’s vibe and concept. The long room is a few steps below street level, cozy and congenial but not cramped, with rough plastered walls and a long marble bar. Five dozen Belgian beers are on offer, most in their own kooky designated glassware (one wooden contraption reminded the Underground Gourmet of something you might make in junior-high shop class), but despite the potential for frat-boy buffoonery, Resto’s bar is an oasis of civility, the sort of place where folks will politely scoot over unasked to make room for you the way they do in cities like Chicago and Cleveland. That may be a function of the service, which is unfailingly friendly, and Pappanicholas’s hands-on management style, a vestige perhaps of his days at Otto and ’inoteca.
There is no dish that Pappanicholas wouldn’t happily match to a beer, but he’s also assembled a nice European wine list. Between the laid-back atmosphere and the impressive beverage selection, it’s easy to see Resto becoming a dependable neighborhood bar in a neighborhood that could use one, but it’s the kitchen that really makes Resto a bona fide destination. Skeen is a seasoned chef, having done time at 5 Ninth and Café Boulud in New York, and Elisabeth Daniel in San Francisco, and although his menu covers well-established Walloon ground, it reinvigorates the category with a devotion to high-quality ingredients, some sophisticated technique, and an irrepressible porkophilia that approaches Momofukian levels.
Resto, in short, is a meat-eater’s paradise. Yes, there is fish—a moist John Dory in a beurre noisette one night, a whole loup de mer for two, a tasty but tiny serving of char-grilled octopus with a bright jolt of grapefruit. And there are the token bits of greenery tucked among the side dishes, like an impeccably dressed mixed-green salad trumpeting fresh spring flavors like sorrel and herbs. But if you love the more intimate bits of the pig and the cow, and what can befall them in the hands of a talented chef, then Resto is the restaurant for you. Vegetarians will find it rough going. That’s their loss. It doesn’t seem right or fair to go through life without tasting Skeen’s deep-fried veal-and-Gruyère bitter ballen (Dutch meatballs), his double-cooked pork belly with endive vinaigrette, his succulent lamb ribs with sheep’s-milk yogurt and pickled tomato, or his slivered deviled eggs on top of “crispy pork toast”—three almost obscene discs of minced, pressed, and deep-fried pork jowl that are crunchy and soft and exploding with flavor. Skeen makes his own sausage (of course) from animals raised sustainably on small local farms (ditto), of which we liked the boudin blanc and the coarse lamb varieties best. This is beer food, done to a T.
Some of the entrées really are beer food, meaning they’re cooked in it. The unctuous, fork-tender beef-cheek carbonnade, for example, is braised in Grotten ale and served in an iron pot over fries that soak up the concentrated jus—like a Mario Batalian version of the French-Canadian specialty poutine. Metal pots of mussels, that quintessential Belgian delicacy, come four ways, including steamed in Witte ale. When they’re not buttressing beef cheeks, Skeen’s frites, which could be crisper, are served in ceramic cones with kangaroo-style pouches for mayo (the lime-pickle variety is especially delicious). And the poularde is a bird with character, thanks no doubt to its free-ranging Four Story Hill Farm provenance.
Would it be demeaning to Skeen and Resto to lavish the most praise on the burger? Maybe. But this one is world-class, a loosely packed, modestly sized house-ground masterpiece of beef cheek, hanger steak, and fatback, nicely accessorized with onion, pickle, mayo, and slightly pungent Timberdoodle cheese from Vermont, all on a squishy white bun from Rockland Bakery. It might be the best burger in New York, including Shake Shack’s.
With most entrées under $20, Resto’s regular menu handily fits an Underground Gourmet’s budget, but opportunities to splurge do arise, especially in the form of chalkboard specials designed for couples or groups to share. There have been curry-roasted poulardes for $55, and a $100 côte de boeuf, all of which lend a chummy conviviality to the proceedings. For dessert, you can sample a variety of Belgian chocolates, or choose between two types of waffles, and at brunch, despite a delicious and virtuous egg-white frittata and a tasty chicken sandwich, the two words you’ll want to commit to memory are “Dutch baby,” a tender skillet-baked pancake. In the spirit of a true neighborhood place, Resto aims to serve food continuously, with an abbreviated late-night menu. Because who knows just when the craving for a Timberdoodle burger and some crispy pork toast might strike?
Address: 111 E. 29th St., nr. Lexington Ave.; 212-685-5585
Hours: Tuesday through Friday 4 p.m. to 1 a.m; Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $14; entrées, $13 to $22.
Ideal Meal: Deviled egg, cheeseburger or beef-cheek carbonnade, raspberry-mango parfait.
Note: Don’t miss the late-night menu’s superb tête de cochon sandwich.
Scratchpad: With its act together in the kitchen and on the floor, Resto makes a strong four-star showing right out of the gate, with five-star potential.