Irving Mill (closed)

by Susan on December 12, 2007

[Food:3.5/5]

Soaring, wood beamed ceilings and iron chandeliers present a medieval barn-like setting at John Schaefer’s Irving Mill, though the space still oozes modernity. Perhaps the lively bar scene, the hip clientele, or the music, whose perfect decibel-level fills the space between the amber lights and the rafters, is responsible. It is certainly reminiscent of Gramercy Tavern, where Schaefer spent the last ten years, but it exudes a much more chic vibe. Irving Mill almost feels organic, as if it might have come to Schaefer and his partners in a dream. The forced kitsch of suspender-clad wait staff, fashioned to look suitable in this stable-esque atmosphere, quickly snap you back to reality: albeit appealing, the sophisticated scene is manufactured.

The years John Schaefer spent at Gramercy and under Tom Colicchio are apparent, not only in the restaurant’s atmosphere, but also in the cooking style. Farm fresh ingredients, proteins and vegetables alike, are the heart of the menu. While organic fare is far from original in Manhattan eateries, Schaefer has brought some flair to the party. He hasn’t relied too heavily on the tasty origins of his meat and fish, taking obvious time to create accompaniments that are not only interesting, but also well portioned. The absence of a roasted chicken with crispy skin also came as a great relief. Schaefer isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel, but perhaps the spoke-laden, wooden circles that decorate the dining area serve as a daily reminder that he might have to, at least try, and improve upon it.

While large, the room still conveys intimacy. Tables are generously spaced across the wooden floor, giving diners coveted real estate and privacy. The service was sporadic, though it improved significantly over the course of the evening. Our server was rushed and harried while taking our drink orders, but once our order was placed, everything flowed with ease and the waiter’s demeanor improved. The supporting staff was exceptional: water glasses were always full and the arrival and clearing of plates, expert.

Grilled Quail, its meat pink and juicy, lay atop creamy cheddar cheese grits dotted with miniscule rectangles of sweet pepper. Rust-colored chicken liver was generously smeared on soft crostini; its flavor so deep that the salty bite of bacon on each piece of bread was wholly unnecessary, if not distracting. Butternut squash soup was neither creamy nor sweet, the taste of celery root too pertinent.

Cotton candy colored Arctic Char, cooked a succulent medium rare and accompanied by a flavorful and inventive mélange of red wine bathed lentils, cabbage, and cippolinis was somehow delicate and hearty. Deceptively pallid Merluza (or Hake) was packed with flavor under its lightly roasted top. A mix of carrots, brussel sprouts and julienned apple was kissed with balsamic, but was a potentially ill fitted suitor for the fish. The Short Ribs’ beef is rightfully given center stage in a dish where the overly slathered sauce is often the showpiece. Here, beef braised into submission is served with grainy farro and refreshed with a dollop of horseradish cream.

Chocolate Bread Pudding tasted more like a dense soufflé. Layers of peanut butter, chocolate, and caramel made for a whimsical Parfait, but crunchy meringue tasted unnatural, like something a child would add given a free pass at the pantry. Neither was particularly sophisticated or inspired.

Irving Mill was better than I expected. Maybe expectations were low, but maybe, just maybe, Schaefer deserves some credit.

Irving Mill
www.irvingmill.com
116 E. 16th Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-1600

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