Not so long ago, ambitious chefs used to display their cooking skills by whipping up elaborate sauce reductions and esoteric foams. Now, thanks to the rise of high-profile carnivore cooks like Mario Batali and David Chang, many young chefs channel their creative energies through the innumerable and variegated possibilities of pork. One of the most promising young luminaries of this “pighead” branch of haute cuisine is Ryan Skeen, who rose to prominence at Resto, an excellent Belgian-style restaurant in the Flatiron district. Skeen’s specialties there included pork-centric dishes like crispy pig-ear salad and a fiendishly delicious innovation called “pork toast,” composed of squares of mashed, deep-fried pork jowls topped with caviar, among other sinful things. Skeen left Resto not long ago, and now he’s taken over the kitchen at Irving Mill (he replaces John Schaefer), bringing his intricate brand of trencherman cooking to a larger, more ambitious stage for the first time.
To sample the dark essence of Skeen’s meaty, calorie-rich repertoire have a bite or two of the spicy Peruvian-style pulled-pork sandwich (located on the “Bites” section of the menu), then order the “charcroute plate,” which comes to the table in regal fashion on a large porcelain serving plate. This mélange of porky goodness includes strips of glazed pork shoulder cut in moon-shaped slices, and crispy wheels of deboned pig’s feet that are flattened and deep-fried. There’s an excellent iteration of that old French classic pig’s-head terrine, served warm so that it liquefies gently on the tip of your tongue, and a sampling of Skeen’s famous salt-and-pepper ribs (also available on the “Bites” menu), which the chef braises in a mix of sugar and soy then deep-fries to give a nice exterior crunch.
Skeen, who has worked at Café Boulud among other places, is adept at cooking things besides pig. The new menu at Irving Mill includes a cooling crudo of kampachi (sprinkled, characteristically, with sizzling little sticks of chorizo) and superior housemade rabbit and boudin blanc sausages, served with pots of artisanal mustard. If you tire of this endless parade of animal products (do we really need pork rinds on our macaroni and cheese?), I recommend the sautéed sturgeon, which is mingled with tiny, sweet beets and a creamy horseradish sauce. My friend the Steak Loon considered the rib eye for two, from Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, to be overpriced at $120. But the gourmet $55 chicken for two (also from Four Story Hill, and served over kale) is a worthy investment, and so is Skeen’s version of lamb “cassoulet” ($26), which contains poached leg of lamb, pink slices of loin, and a crispy strip of lamb’s belly, all neatly arranged on a bed of softly cooked coco beans.
The airy, overly large space at Irving Mill is still decorated with random bits of barnyard paraphernalia (i.e., freakishly shaped gourds), and it’s still too big by half. Skeen’s elegantly casual brand of cooking is probably best suited to the bar area, and the item to get there is the superbly charred house cheeseburger, which the excitable Steak Loon lovingly described as “a beef bomb, oozing blood and glory.” Several of the new desserts at Irving Mill pack a similar punch. I liked the doughnut-shaped apple fritters (made with real slices of apple) and the excessively smooth banana-cream-pie “parfait,” garnished with broken chocolate macaroons. Best of all is the crème fraîche panna cotta. It has a velvety crème brûlée texture to it, and a cool tartness (thanks to a topping of cranberry compote) that soothes the belly and makes it the perfect coda to a satisfying pighead feast.
The grandly vacant community hall of a famous midtown church is certainly a novel location for a fancy new restaurant. But in these perilous economic times, it’s also an unfortunate one. That was the consensus at the table as my guests and I peered around Inside Park at St. Bart’s, which opened not long ago in an annex hall of Saint Bartholomew’s church on Park Avenue. The big space used to be the site of church pageants and socials, and on this particular evening it exuded an eerie, doomed feel. Flapper music echoed eerily over the speaker system as waiters gamely perambulated trays of food to and fro among the sea of white tops. The tables were mostly empty, except for what looked like a party of parishioners dressed in tweed jackets to our right, and an elderly couple quietly sipping glasses of tap water in a distant banquette. “We’re on the Titanic,” someone said. “I hear the sound of the waves. I feel the tables listing gently off to the right.”
Which is too bad, because the food at Inside Park is thoughtful, well executed, and generally first-rate. The chef is Matthew Weingarten, a well-known forager cook of the old school who worked for many years at the seminal Greenmarket establishment Savoy. Weingarten’s menu is an expansive dissertation on the usual farm-to-table themes, and includes jugs of properly rustic “whole hog” rillettes (in the small “Simple Plates” section), a deliciously chunky rabbit ragù over hand-cut pappardelle, and a well-cooked heritage pork chop as big as a Park Avenue hubcap. Does his brand of carefully wrought farmer’s grub work in such an oddly impersonal midtown setting? Not really. But if you have the urge to sip dirty martinis in church (yes, a full bar is served) while gorging on ribbons of country ham, excellent pasture-raised chicken, and what might possibly be the best bread pudding in Christendom (it’s plated in crème anglaise and scattered with candied pecans), you could do a whole lot worse.
Address: 116 E. 16th St., nr. Irving Pl.; 212-254-1600
Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $14; entrées, $18 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Charcroute plate, chicken for two, cheeseburger or lamb cassoulet, crème fraîche panna cotta.
Note: Although the menu has changed, Irving Mill still retains its excellent selection of stouts and Trappist ales from Europe.
Scratchpad: Thankfully, pigheads don’t care about décor. One star for the charcuterie, and another for everything else.
Inside Park at St. Bart’s (View Menu)
Address: 109 E. 50th St., nr. Park Ave.; 212-593-3333
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $16; entrées, $24 to $32.
Ideal Meal: Choice of three “Simple Plates,” rabbit ragù or pork chop, bread pudding.
Note: The vacant room brightens at lunchtime, when business folk fill the tables and a decent burger is served.
Scratchpad: Weingarten is a multistar chef in the proper setting, but the Titanic-era room is a serious drawback.