Irving Mill

Some restaurants seem destined for women. Take any man over 5'9" to the diminutive Cafe Cluny, for instance, and the results are almost comical. One wrong move and several dainty cafe tables, botanical displays in glass cases, and neighboring female diners are in danger of tumbling to the floor.

Some restaurants seem made for men. Not because the waiters toss around a Saran-wrapped hunk of red meat or offer dozens of beers on tap - Irving Mill does neither of these things. But take in the oversize scale of the restaurant - from the front bar room so roomy it could induce agoraphobia, to the wagon wheel decoration scheme, to the massive (3,000 pounds!) millstone of a bar table - and you might be reminded of the old testosterone-laden Bill Murray Hercules SNL skit. ("That boulder is too large. I could lift a smaller one.")

The hype surrounding the opening of Irving Mill has been even bigger. Huge space off Union Square, under construction for a year! The chef from Gramercy Tavern! Celebrity investors like Benjamin Bratt! On the night we visited, Town Cars and Suburbans (the new Town Car) loitered out front. And now even Chelsea Clinton is going there.

Expectations were running high - maybe too high. When the food turned out to be not mind-blowing (as alpha wino Robert Parker would put it) but merely good, we were disappointed. The setting had more guts than the celery root "chowder," which came off as comparatively wimpy - bland, and not substantive enough to live up to the hype. Unfortunately, this set the tone for much of the fare at Irving Mill.

Recent Page Six reports have it that a server at Irving Mill was fired because he brought Chelsea Clinton the wrong appetizer. No such mix-up occurred with us; if anything, we had too many very attentive people waiting on us, to the point that we couldn't figure out who was the server, the hostess, the sommelier, the manager, the busboy, or another person hovering whose job we didn't quite know. Despite the service overkill, this white bean dip and bread, right, didn't appear on the (huge) table until we'd been there a half hour. It was very good, though it had a confusing number of thingamabobs on top.

Chicken liver crostini were also good, though they recalled the lament, "What am I, chopped liver?" Compared to a richer pate or foie gras, these were just chopped liver. Perhaps looking for the essence of the Greenmarket fare he's serving, chef John Schaefer tends to err on the side of oversimplification. All you have to do is look at the sheep's milk ricotta salad with a few marinated mushrooms buried beneath to understand it: WYSIWYG. We longed for more pizazz.

Entrees fared better, with the grilled pork chop with cabbage, spaetzle and pickled mustard seed winning for best of the bunch. Let's hope more of these interesting pickled and marinated ingredients arrive on Schaefer's (massive) table, because they push his New American cuisine into a more inventive zone. And spaetzle is the homily elegant comfort food of the day.

Beef short ribs braised in stout were satisfying, but not particularly craveable. A lot of appetizing things were added to the mix at serving time - nubbly farro, roasted tomatoes, marrow, and horseradish cream - but there could have been a little more invention earlier on in the cooking process to give the ribs some extra oomph. They cried out for garlic, onion, shallots, salt, pepper - something. There's almost nothing you can throw at short ribs that they can't take.

Atlantic codfish was bland. That may be what you get for ordering cod, but it sounded so exciting on the page - served with artichokes, spinach, and chanterelles. When it arrived, it looked pretty, but it was just cod with artichokes, spinach, and chanterelles.

Did we expect too much? Did we not try enough? (There were five of us dining, and we all concurred on the verdict.) What makes a dish leap off the menu and become not just a list of ingredients but an exciting new creation? There's a bit of magic involved that Irving Mill's namesake Washington Irving understood. Let's hope Irving Mill takes a page from him - and not just as writing on the (supersized) banquettes.

Irving Mill
116 East 16th Street, between Union Square East and Irving Place


Jennifer K said...

I completely disagree. The food and atmosphere are superb. I found the banquets cozy and inviting and didn't find the restaurant either feminine or masculine. It was beautiful and I found it quite warm and beautiful. Shocked at your review. Have been several times and have been pleased each time.