The Inn LW12

Though it aims for Spotted Pig-ness, the Inn LW12 is not yet the Canadian gastropub we hoped it would be. Instead it's a classic Meat-Packing-District entity: very good looking, but without a whole lot of interesting stuff to say.

Which, as with pretty people, is all very disappointing considering the effort that has gone into the Inn LW12's appearance. The old Rio Mar space has been completely gutted and gussied up. The lively bar scene in the downstairs "Tap Room" (top right) was a mix of friendly tourists and New Yorkers annoyed by friendly tourists on the weekend. On a recent weeknight, it seemed to be populated primarily by New Yorkers. There are laminated wooden beams everywhere and a bar hung with traditional pub lights and bedecked with taps.

In the "Canoe Room" upstairs, an antique Native American dress hangs above a cozy overstuffed sofa right next to the upended half of a refurbished, gleaming wooden canoe. The room is dimly lit and snug, with a long tufted leather banquette running around the perimeter. Everywhere the space glints with light from the reflection of lacquered wood. She is quite a looker. Even the ceiling beams are polished to a high shine and set in between with more distressed mirrors like those at Pastis across the street.

This was the first sign that something might be amiss.

"It's those mirrors again," I said to my Canadian friend, who I brought along as my passport to the Inn LW12. "Just like they have in Canada, right?"

"Riiight," Canada said.

Then there was the delay in getting our appetizers. Forty minutes passed between the time we placed our order and the time the food arrived on the table, by which point we were ravenous and cranky. When a place has been open for just a matter of weeks, you expect the timing to be a little off. Unless you're hungry, in which case it's not OK. I tried to console myself with beer. There weren't any microbrews on tap upstairs; the only Canadian offerings they had were Labatt's and Molson, which was surprising for a pub. In case you're wondering whether Molson is worth revisiting now, 20 years after its American heyday, no, it isn't.

In an effort to mollify us, our waiter explained, "The kitchen is slow tonight. I have a table that's been waiting for a half hour just for a cheese plate, and for them, all the kitchen has to do is take the plastic wrap off."

At least he was friendly. Despite the Inn LW12's location in Attitude Central, the staff is incredibly nice, accommodating, and much faster than the kitchen. Many of them are either Canadian or related to a Canadian. The chef, Andy Bennett, comes to us from the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel in London, and even Daniel Boulud consulted on the menu.

Finally, the appetizers arrived in a flurry. The salmon confit, left, was fairly tasteless and had a strangely grainy texture instead of the silkiness I expected, and the grilled asparagus salad was nicely peppery but really just a jumble of asparagus, fig, parmesan, and ham without any real rhyme or reason - or coherence - behind the combination.

But other apps were very rewarding. I won the Master Orderer prize of the night with my appetizer selection of the pig's trotter, right, which was so good I forgot to take notes. The pig's feet were melt-in-your-mouth delicious (to the point that it reminded me of that other mecca of pork goodness, Momofuku), sandwiched between two buttery pieces of fried toast, touched up with a bit of potent mustard, and counterbalanced by the crunchy frisee. Huge chunks of bacon, prosciutto-like in taste but chunky and chewy in texture, made the egg cocotte with spinach a winner.

Then...drum roll please...the poutine. Supposedly the Inn LW12's raison d'etre here in New York, the town that has never seen this Canadian version of disco fries, the poutine was disappointing. I'm afraid we ate the top layer of cheese and gravy off before I took a photo, but here is what lies beneath. As you can see, there is not enough gravy. As Canada can attest, poutine should be "a soupy mess." Though the Inn LW12's gravy was wonderfully savory and salty, there wasn't nearly enough of it. (Note to gravy chef: you could even get away with watering it down a little, as I do every Thanksgiving - shhh!) Though we'd waited 40 minutes for these disco fries, their dryness spoke of many minutes under a heat lamp. The cheese curds too were not what they were supposed to be. Left in large chunks rather than crumbled into smaller pieces, the cheese tasted more like Polly-O than the fresh cheese curds I remember from Montreal poutine. And the texture wasn't right either. As Heathrow, my fellow blogger friend, put it, the curds should be "squeaky."

Canada looked downcast. "I want so much for this to be what I remember," she said, "but it's not."

Alas, we plowed onward. The entrees arrived in a timely manner. Though I have read very good things about the lamb burger, I took a gamble with the Guinness braised beef with mashed potatoes. Well, it's braised beef, so I guess I should have expected a pot-roast like chunk of it, but I was kind of hoping for the kind of excellence you can coax out of beef with Guinness in dishes like the shepherd's pie at Half King. The pan fried cod was odd - fish set beside another incoherent jumble of salad. But the fresh Idaho trout with smoked trout veloute brought back some of the classic Canadian tastes I remembered. Up north, they really know how to smoke meats and fish.

So what is Canadian food? Americans like to scoff at Canada, but most Americans who like to make fun of Canada have never actually been there, which says more about Americans than it does about Canada. Rarely have I eaten better than I did in Montreal a couple years back. The wonderful cheeses, pork, game, fish, and yes, an abundance of foie gras, were almost all locally sourced long before that became a trend here. The great irony of the Inn LW12 is that in general, Canadian restaurants - Quebecois ones, at least - are immune to the trendy fatuousness, the seconds-long attention span, the constant craving for something "different" that plagues us here in New York. Yet the Inn LW12 is nothing if not trendy. Of course, as Thomas Beller pointed out in this essay on Rio Mar's closing in New York Magazine, we are all to blame.

So with a couple of highlights - the sleekly cozy ambiance, the delicious pig's trotter, egg cocotte, and smoked trout - why is the Inn LW12 still a no? The prices. The cocktails start at $16, and the most expensive entree is $39 - for a pork chop. This is what really left us reeling and prompted me to apologize to my friends for bringing them to the Inn at LW12. Until the kitchen gets up to speed, the Inn LW12 is basically a great place to get a drink, particularly the Maple Leaf, as Jonathan Miles mentioned last weekend in Shaken and Stirred.

But there's a nugget of good news in all this: the New York poutine contest is officially on. Who'll be the next to throw his hat into the ring? Canadians, start your engines.

The Inn LW12
7 Ninth Avenue at Little W. 12th Street