Even in these fat times, the art of the culinary spinoff requires a delicate touch. The maestro chef who has opened one restaurant to great acclaim can lead his (or her) newly devoted tadpole school of followers in many confusing directions. There’s the “bigfoot” option, whereby a smaller, more refined establishment seeks to broaden its base with a bigger, brassier version of the original (Danny Meyer parlays the Union Square Café into the Gramercy Tavern). There’s the “hip new cuisine” option, whereby the maestro attempts something completely different (David Bouley goes Austrian with Danube, Meyer goes Indian lite with Tabla). Then there’s the currently voguish “rustic” option, which offers less showy or aggressive tadpole followers the opportunity to dine in casual café surroundings, on simpler – and hopefully cheaper – approximations of the great dishes being served only a few blocks away, back at the mother ship (Blue Ribbon leads to Blue Ribbon Bakery, Babbo leads to Lupa, Balthazar leads to Pastis).
Although each of these strategies has its merits, it’s rare to see them attempted all at once. But that’s what Mark Strausman appears to be doing with Chinghalle, the latest brasserie to set up shop amid the shambled warehouses along Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district. Strausman’s mother ship is Campagna, a stylish restaurant near the Flatiron Building specializing in elegant dishes from the north of Italy. Chinghalle is larger than Campagna, more raffishly downmarket, and, in the end, not really Italian at all. Even the name, which means “wild boar,” is spelled wrong. Cinghiale is correct, but Strausman has Americanized it, presumably so his new clientele won’t get too muddled when they dial 411. He’s painted a garish sign outside the big, double-height space (it used to be a hamburger warehouse) and colored the whole ensemble in rusty orange hues. He’s also injected his traditional Italian formula with retro American comfort food, so pastas coexist uneasily on the menu next to un-Tuscan dishes like pork ribs “Cabo” style, and a banana split constructed from different gelatos.
Chinghalle is advertised as an “American brasserie,” but after Campagna, these decorative and culinary innovations feel clamorous and a little unruly, like the adolescent equivalent of the real thing. On my first visit, I managed to procure a rustic dining booth downstairs, made from vintage Belgian train cars; later in the week I was banished to the mezzanine, a limbo land (at least on Thursday night) of yammering crowds, slow service, and constantly bleating cell phones. In combat conditions like these, it helps to keep things simple, and executive chef Matthew Gavzie’s communal appetizers have a pared-down appeal. Chef Gavzie splits his time between Chinghalle and Campagna, but his sympathies clearly still lie with the Old Country. His grilled pizzas were tantalizing (ask for the “Three Cheeses”), with a chewable, almost pitalike crust. A plate of frites (with de rigueur dipping sauces) were limp by comparison but were redeemed by a bowl of zucchini chips, golden-fried and thin as silver dollars.
The more ambitious appetizers might have tasted just as fine, if it weren’t for the mob of hairy-fisted bankers at the next table, barking in my ear. But dining in the meatpacking district is a stampede event these days, just like TriBeCa was when that neighborhood first got bull-rushed back in the eighties. Perhaps in memory of those high times, Chef Gavzie serves up frog legs (too big and froggy tasting, in a wet lemon sauce), strips of nicely sautéed sweetbreads, and a strangely misplaced Waldorf salad, finely chopped, with summery bits of crabmeat and grapes. I also sampled a squash soup, which was as thick as applesauce and treacly enough to be dessert, and a shrimp-and-avocado “Calypso” salad straight from the kitchen of a sixties-era Caribbean resort. The Chinghalle sausage may have been actual wild pig, although any hint of gamy, free-range taste was muffled by a confusing mass of baked beans. The grilled calamari was much better, although our waiter forgot the crucial lemon wedge and had to go elbowing back through the crowd to retrieve it.
But then, elbowing is the house sport at Chinghalle, where lines for the two unisex bathrooms rival the ones at Newark Airport during the holiday rush. Tables are jumbled together pigpen style, turning eavesdropping into a kind of spectator event. (“You give me six grand in cash, I’ll put ten grand on the books,” I heard one of the bankers say.) I took refuge in a succession of satisfying pastas, including the baked cavatelli (a square of macaroni and cheese, laced with Sicilian tuna, in a béchamel sauce), and spaghetti alla nonna, a subtle mix of olives, black pepper, and zucchini, done to al dente perfection. The best of the seafood dishes was a platter of monkfish and giant sea scallops, densely skewered on a rosemary brochette. Among heartier entrées, however, the St. Louis ribs weren’t worth the messy effort, and my Cornish-game-hen coq au vin had a lovely, juicy exterior, but was dried out inside. More successful was a Frisbee-size portion of organic chicken parmigiana and a serving of lamb, richly braised in a red-wine sauce, with a mess of creamy whipped polenta on the side.
There’s nothing elaborate about this brand of Italian cooking; it’s Mulberry Street comfort food, done with an artful twist. But there’s not enough of it on the main menu, and by the time the desserts rolled around, it had essentially disappeared altogether. An almond-pear tart looked suspiciously like something heisted from Pastis, across the street, and the zabaglione served in a huge punch glass was stale and crunchy with ice. True to the American-brasserie theme, there’s a key-lime pie (which tasted too much like cheesecake), and the giant gelato banana split, which didn’t taste like much of anything at all. On my last evening at Chinghalle, I followed my Waldorf salad and chicken parmigiana main course with a puzzling and pricey Chipwich-style ice-cream sandwich for dessert. I washed the whole schizophrenic ensemble down with a glass of Grappa, then sat back and listened to the frenetic chattering sounds ringing in my ear. After a good meal, at a fine restaurant, like Campagna, say, a satisfied glow settles over the table. It doesn’t feel that way at Chinghalle, at least not yet. The food’s too varied, the scene’s too aggressive, and the room’s too loud. It feels like any other lost evening out, adrift in the big city.