Disco fries: anyone in the world who considers himself into food should be aware of these. I have only had them in the culinary Meccas that are the diners of the Jersey Shore still open when the bars close, but I am sure every town has a version and a cool name for them. If yours doesn’t, move. Truly genius food stuff, they are basically steak-cut French fries placed on an oval stoneware plate and topped with a couple of squares of yellow American cheese product. The dish is thrown under a salamander until the cheese is limp enough to lay on the fries but not melt (I am not sure that this type of cheese has a melting point that is attainable before that of the fries and the plate so this seems the standard level of warmth). This combination is then topped with the thick brown gravy and its skin intended for open-faced roast beef sandwiches and Blue Plate meatloaf. When dining with dainty companions there is also a version with the gravy in a soup cup on the side.
Poutine: the first time I heard of poutine was in the back of a black car in the wee hours of the morning en route to the neighborhood from a house party in Brooklyn. Bubby suggested we reroute the car to Montreal for the most amazing drunk food ever, French fries topped with cheese curds and brown gravy. To date I have never been to Canada to sample this product but I have ordered when it comes up here, each time to be assured by Bubby it was nowhere near as good as the one that awaited us had we made the drive to the great white north. I very much enjoyed a dish called poutine at Shopsin’s on a couple of hungover mornings, but like disco fries I imagine the magic of poutine is in their ability to temper the hangover effects of a long ambitious night of consumption when ingested on the way to bed, not from.
I was always sure I would get talked into this Canadian road trip one day and when Bubby gifted me with the cookbook of Au Pied de Cochon last November it was pretty much cinched we would be going soon. Then I learned of the imminent opening of a place called The Inn Little West Tweflth and saw a way to delay the trip till the summer.
When I called The Inn Lw12 I remembered to ask if they really had poutine and if they would have Beaujolais (it is what Pied seems to recommend as pairing well). In my eagerness to try the version of poutine made by a Canadian restaurant in New York under the influence of Daniel Boulud what I forgot to ask was if they were open, which is why when Bubby and I showed up Tuesday night they had to explain they weren’t. They were soft opening to feel out the space with a limited menu and beverage choice for friends and family. After some pleading they said they would slide two of us into the bar and we could order but couldn’t hold it against them if we chose something they had run out of because they had planned to serve about seventy that night and were well past that long before we showed up.
In general I avoid reporting on places that haven’t opened, but as restaurants like Waverly Inn and L’Atelier shade the lines of open or not I have amended my rule for scrutiny to what is being charged. If a place is open and expecting full price for what they are serving I feel they are subject to my full expectations of a restaurant. Inn Lw12 was a gray area, they were charging full price for what they were offering, but on my first visit there was still craft paper in the windows and I watched them turn away people that hadn’t been on the phone that AM. My instinct was to give them space and save reporting for a couple of weeks but they so impressed me during their version of the soft open I figure I will sing their praises.
It has always seemed to me discounting prices while you get up to speed would be fair. If you run a new restaurant and you expect inevitable glitches, accommodate your guests in some way -- free desserts, a round of drinks, fifteen percent off, whatever, but say thank you to members of the general public that aren’t friends and family for letting you learn on us.
At the top of my current list for ways to do this, having eaten twice at Inn Lw12, is the limited menu approach. As the restaurant got up to speed they only offered one cocktail, a caipirinha-like thing, and they made it well (but expensively), they had a passable red and white wine but not an entire list, and they had seven starters and seven entrees. A small enough program, it would seem, to properly concentrate, yet large enough to actually cause the place to run its paces. It went so well Tuesday with Bubby that I begged my way back in Thursday with Pichon, Helmet, and Chakka, only to find Bubby and Luh at the bar. Both times we sat in the bar area, once at the bar and once at a bar- height table at its end. This isn’t a sampling of all they will be doing but rather what they were:
NIGHT ONE Tuesday PRE-OPENING:
Crispy Pig’s Trotter with Mustard, Frisée and Lentil du Puy: sandwiched between two squares of pressed white toast were bits of roasted pig’s foot, rich and sweet without the abundance of gelatinous fat you would expect, surrounded by strips of wafer thin crispy pork skin, a scattering of dark green French lentils, and frisée, dressed vinegar-y enough to draw natural sweetness from the pig, but not so much that the other ingredients’ flavors and textural contrasts were overshadowed.
Salad of Salmon Confit, Citrus Escabache and Winter Leaves: Salmon cooked slowly and gently enough that none of the volatile fats were upset making for wonderful cubes of redolent, supple, rich orange flesh in the salad with this almost perfect sampling of what should be some of the greatest fish out there, which sadly often isn’t these days. Vinegary fennel escabeche, decent flakes of maldon sea salt, a mélange of fine herbs spread through mixed lettuces, layers of sliced fennel bulb, and citrus sections all played to this strong representation. A faultless salad, I ordered two more of them on the second visit and the five of us who have shared them so far all concur.
Grilled Lamb Burger, Harissa Mayonnaise and Chick Pea Fries: ground lamb formed in a patty around herbed goat cheese, grilled on a bun with LTM and a smoky, piquant mayo. More of the mayo on the side added zip to creamy cubes of chick pea puree (with the consistence of a loose polenta) dusted in corn meal and fried golden.
Poutine: medium-gauge fries topped with white cheese curd served in a cast-iron dish and broiled so the corners of the fries on top had a little blackening on their edges. To me the dish tasted like disco fries with far better gravy (more meat-flavored than brown-flavored) and saltier cheese, both of which I appreciated. Bubby declared it the right flavor but the wrong look. So I guess I am still due a roadtrip, but I am glad to have this arrow in the quiver of ammo against late night stumbles while at home anyway; they are pretty tasty.
NIGHT TWO Thursday PRE-OPENING (This night I did call ahead to be sure of a place and was happy upon my arrival to find my name horribly misspelled in the computer, allowing me to rest easy that I had received the same treatment any enthusiastic diner would, and nothing special because of Augieland.)
Duck Barley Soup with Savoy Cabbage, and Winter Roots: bits of duck leg meat in a rich broth perfumed with tarragon, laden with baby turnips (and/or parsnips), mirepoix, and wilted lettuce-y leaves of cabbage. More often than not I have been served tarragon in dishes with various iodine crustaceans and it gets soapy when not handled most carefully. Here it was definitely abundant but was pleasingly suited to these flavors; I will be playing with it at home.
Organic Berkshire Pork Chop with Braised Endive and Pear: a roasted chop coated with a lovely slightly sweet/slightly sour almost Asian barbeque-type sauce, it was succulent and juicy, with a great play between the roasted bits of pork and the sauce.
I also tasted Veal Tongue and Cheek with Coco Beans, Pearl onions, and Parsley; Pan Fried Monkfish with Fennel Polenta and Pine Nut Gremolata; Garganalli Pasta with Chanterelles, Rocket Pesto and Parmesan; Cheese plate; and have nothing but appreciation for and nice things to say about them all.
What will happen when The Inn Lw12 opens full bore? I am not sure so I won’t say. I will say that I have been to many preview nights at many restaurants around town and have never been as impressed. The room is comfortable, warm and convivial without being over the top, the service was the same, and the food existed at a level that was far above the relaxed atmosphere and prices. I suspect this place will end up very crowded just because it is small and even a modicum of success will cause it to be tight. The calm confidence in preview seems to suggest that will be ok.
It is about time for the followers of trend to figure out that their leaders have already left MePa, and thusly places that have survived on proximity to skill rather than skill should start to fall out of favor. As this happens and those of us that eat dare our way back into that recently overcrowded pool, this will be one of my dive-in points.