In the dizzy upper realms of food-obsessed Manhattan, fashion trends come and go like the weather. To survive in this fickle environment, restaurateurs usually adopt one of two strategies. They build a sound foundation and hunker down, with minor adjustments, through thick and thin; or they hop around, trying on new coats and hats, in an endless attempt to anticipate the next meteorological event. The distinction is not unlike Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous “hedgehog and fox” analogy, although when I mentioned that to my wife, as we sat down to dinner at Midway, the casually swank, newly reinvented, very foxlike establishment in the far West Village, she gave me a puzzled look. Sir Isaiah’s hedgehog, I reminded her, was the thinker like Tolstoy or Plato (Andre Soltner, in restaurant terms) who had one big idea and stuck to it, as opposed to the changeable fox (Voltaire, Keith McNally), who had many. My wife sipped her glass of Perrier for a while in polite silence. “Honey,” she said at last, “let’s just order some food.”
As most foodie philosophers know, the restaurant now named Midway was called Waterloo during the bizarre and thankfully brief moules-frites craze of the late nineties. The location – a former garage on the corner of Charles and Washington Streets – is the same, as is the executive chef and co-owner, Bill Schutz, and the three principal owners, who also run the Village bistro Le Zoo. But the name is new (it refers to a fairground promenade, not the World War II battle), and the formerly bleak Euro interior has been replaced with a kind of streamlined, new-millennium look. Tall doors open out onto the sidewalk, and diners sit in curvy plastic Knoll chairs or on banquettes upholstered with the same stretchy, Prada-red mesh you find in upmarket running shoes. There were supposed to be plasma-TV screens behind the bar, looping nasa footage, but thankfully they haven’t been installed. Instead, the room felt unfussy and pleasingly neutral, like a cross between some minimalist, high-design airport lounge and a friendly neighborhood café.
This clean, palate-cleansing quality extends to Schutz’s menu, which is mercifully free of moules, and contains only two entrées (cuts of sirloin and hanger steak) over $20. As it happens, the priciest of the appetizers – a pedestal of yellowfin-tuna tartare and chopped avocado, dripped with apricot-mustard dressing, for a modest $10 – was also the least interesting. I began my explorations with that, but quickly began poaching my wife’s garlic soup, which was lightly frothy and tasted faintly of thyme, with slivers of artichoke at the bottom. After that came a slab of shrimp terrine (bound with baby asparagus in a cucumber-dill crème fraîche), which seemed overly refrigerated but was beautiful to look at. My friend, the endive nut, gave two thumbs up to an inventive salad made with thatches of white endive, with blue cheese and bits of sweet pecan buried inside, and I enjoyed several diaphanous slivers of beef sashimi (in a soy dressing, with Anjou pear and toasted sesame seeds), even though the entire dish took me roughly three seconds to consume.
But Schutz, who has worked at La Caravelle and as the chef de cuisine at Bouley Bakery, isn’t trying to please fatso, palate-crazed New Yorkers like me. His cooking is an antidote to the excesses of post-bull market Manhattan, a kind of elegant-diner version of haute cuisine. Potentially clunky dishes like hanger steak and pork tenderloin emerge from Shutz’s kitchen looking clean and compact, like stylish VW Bug versions of the original. Instead of being stuck with showy herbs and bombed with sweet sauces, his pork is marinated in olive oil, then plated in neatly grilled slices on a mound of savoy cabbage speckled with fennel seeds. A bubbly, peach-colored emulsion (from paprika) highlights the pinkness of the pork, and if you want applesauce, there’s a spoonful of dense apple purée on the side, flavored with cardamom. The hanger steak is arranged in the same sleek way, on a bed of lightly creamed spinach, with a modest stack of thick, double-blanched frites on the side and a cup of freshly made mayonnaise, for dipping.
This kind of stripped-down elegance dovetails neatly with a whole range of fish dishes on the menu at Midway. My wife, who is finicky as a cat, actually compared her richly textured monkfish to lobster, which I thought was a bit of a stretch. But my sturgeon, which is a notoriously oily fish, was simultaneously tender and meaty, like a freshwater version of grilled swordfish. Schutz’s seared salmon was crispy around the edges and orange inside, although I’m not sure it went well with the accompanying bits of glazed pineapple. Ditto the duck breast, which seemed to get lost in a mixture of bland wild rice and overly sweet peach purée. But comfort-food addicts will enjoy the burger (with more Belgian frites, and a wet coleslaw infused with ginger) and the weekend brunch, which offers a roster of home-cooked items like fluffy buttermilk waffles and thick slabs of pork-belly bacon (drizzled with honey and black pepper).
Although Midway fills up on party nights with the usual assortment of downtown hipsters and poseurs, most of the time it feels like a casual neighborhood joint. Only at this neighborhood joint, you’ll find a selection of relatively rare Viognier wines, along with fancy vintages of white Burgundy (Comtes Lafon ‘97) and Bordeaux (Haut-Brion ‘83). The desserts are fancy, too, although in a refreshingly unobtrusive sort of way. Five dollars will get you a rich disc of bread pudding made with buttery pieces of brioche, and a crowd of fat, rum-soaked raisins. For two dollars more, you can splurge on a helping of cool white-chocolate mousse, dusted with a powdering of bittersweet chocolate, on a slim hazelnut praline. When we added these delicious, bargain-basement desserts to our dinner tab, the damage came to $158.32 for three, including tip and a bottle of wine. I spent roughly the same amount on my next visit, and the last time I went to Midway I don’t think I bothered to inspect the check. Let’s hope that’s one trend that’s here to stay.
Midway 145 Charles Street (212-352-1118). Dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m. Brunch Saturday noon to 3 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Appetizers $6 to $10; entrées, $11 to $24. All major credit cards.