Soon, the men in white jackets pushing racks of beef around the streets of the meatpacking district will have become nothing more than a memory, even if the transvestite hookers are still swinging their handbags along 10th Avenue. Chinghalle on Gansevoort Street is the latest trendy brasserie to move into a former meatpacking plant in this rapidly changing neighborhood. The restaurant, which has a splashy bright orange and blue façade, opened just around the corner from Pastis’ splashy red and yellow façade. Owner Mark Strausman is the chef behind both Flatiron hot spot Campagna and Fred’s, the chic trattoria in the basement of Barneys. The name is a deliberate misspelling of cinghiale , Italian for “wild boar.” (A pointless dumbing-down, it seems; few people know the word, and those who do can surely spell it.) Presumably it’s named for the great grilled wild boar sausage, made in-house, that is one of the best things on the menu.
The stark decor, a mixture of meatpacking utilitarian and high-tech chic, is like a stage set for a play that takes place in the brasserie of a European railway station during the war. The walls are scarred brick, the floor distressed concrete, and the booths (complete with wooden overhead luggage racks) were taken from Belgian trains. But much of the patina and industrial feeling are lost in the wake of the flat, rust-colored paint covering the ironwork and ceiling. Booths separate the mirrored front bar from the dining room, which is lit by photographic lights on overhanging square grids. Polished wood tables are inlaid with orange circles and rectangles that glow in the reflection of votive candles. The open kitchen is so bright, it’s hard to see the rest of the room when facing it (a shield over the lights would help). The mezzanine houses a quieter, if somewhat claustrophobic, dining room. We were shown up here on a Saturday night, when the crush at the door was so intense that you could barely get inside. When we returned on a Sunday night, the restaurant was half empty. We sat downstairs next to a friendly Giants fan, smarting from the afternoon’s defeat, who kept leaning over to our table and chatting as if still at the game.
Perhaps it was his stint beneath Barneys that gave Mr. Strausman the idea for having both a designer and bridge line, like Calvin Klein’s cK or Donna Karan’s DKNY. If Campagna is Mr. Strausman’s designer collection, Chinghalle offers his bridge line: pared-down, simpler fare that, like the decor, has something of a 40′s feel, with dishes such as Waldorf crab salad. At first glance, the food looks like a bargain, with main courses under 20 bucks. But this is deceptive, since most first courses are in the double digits. The dishes are generous and accessible, but the kitchen-under chef de cuisine Matthew Gavzie, who worked with Mr. Strausman at Fred’s and Coco Pazzo-is still settling down.
Start with the wild boar sausage and you won’t be disappointed. Thick, moist slices, tasting faintly of fennel and garlic, arrived on a bed of syrupy beans that had been perfectly cooked and flavored with molasses. The grilled calamari was also wonderful: lightly breaded, charred and tender, needing nothing more than a squeeze of lemon to please.
One of the dishes was listed as “Three frog legs with lemon and parsley.” Why three? This question really bothered my husband. “If you sell an uneven number of orders, what happens to the extra leg?” he asked the waitress.
“Lots of people ask that question,” she said, laughing. “I don’t know.”
But when she set the plate in front of me, there were four legs. (The menu has since been changed to simply read “frog legs.”) I tried to interest my 12-year-old son in a bite, adding the standard line (“It tastes just like chicken”), but he refused.
“Mom, I don’t want to eat an amphibian, O.K.?”
He was right to avoid the amphibian. Its large limbs, garnished with lemon and parsley, were tough and tasteless.
He ordered the grilled pizza of the day to start, and it was a wise choice. The thin, crisp crust was dripping with melted cheese (not just three, as advertised, but four: Gruyère, Parmesan, Taleggio and Gorgonzola-but who’s counting?).
After tasting a few dishes, I began to wonder whether someone had told the kitchen to avoid salt. A chopped salad made from a selection of lettuces with tomato and cucumber was fine, except it badly needed salt. So did the soggy French fries, which were served with three indistinguishable dipping sauces. Cornish game hen, prepared like coq au vin, was way overcooked-and under-salted.
The food here isn’t something to think about. These are dishes to hunker down over on a cold night with a good bottle of Sangiovese from the well-priced and largely Italian list. St. Louis pork ribs were so moist and tender that they literally fell off the bone when dipped in the bowl of spicy sauce. The strip steak looked a bit meager but had an excellent beefy flavor that was deepened by a fine sauce Diane (a brown sauce with cream and red wine vinegar). On a Sunday evening, the grilled fish of the day was salmon, a thick fillet cooked rare in the middle and served on a raft of fat asparagus spears and roast potatoes.
If, like my son, you are a devotee of the Astérix comics, you know that every adventure ends with a feast of wild boar. So one night, having begun dinner with wild boar sausage, he went on, unfazed, to consume a bowl of penne topped with “chinghalle” sauce. It was almost as good as the sausage. The boar, which is not from France but Texas, was braised in red wine with tomatoes and shredded over the pasta. “Baked cavatelli with Sicilian casserole” turned out to be tuna casserole, homey and satisfying, made with canned Italian tuna mixed with mushrooms, bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese in a rich béchamel sauce.
Service is very friendly, but there was a long wait between main courses and desserts. The latter are still being worked on, but they include a minimalist banana split that could use more toppings (how about some brownies and M&M’s?), and a Valrhôna chocolate cake would have been good had it been warmer. A key lime tart and an ice cream sandwich made with chocolate-chip cookies and vanilla ice cream were nothing special.
Chinghalle is already wildly popular, but it is also wildly uneven. “I have a question,” my son asked halfway through dinner on our second visit. “Is the food in a restaurant usually better when you’re seated right by the kitchen?”
He’s catching on fast.
50 Gansevoort Street
Noise level: High but bearable
Wine list: Mostly Italian, reasonably priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $15 to $21
Dinner: Sunday to Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight; Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
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