No chef worth his hand-harvested sea salt would open a New York restaurant today that’s not ruthlessly seasonal, using produce from local farms. To this end, Irving Mill is certainly well placed, being barely half a block from the Union Square Greenmarket.
The space that used to be Candela has been transformed into a postmodern version of a New England inn, with wood paneling, whitewashed walls, beamed ceilings, amber lighting, iron chandeliers, old framed photographs and landscapes. Pumpkins and dried corn stalks decorate the entrance to the tap room, where people are crowded around the long, curved zinc bar or drinking cocktails in the lounge area. A six-foot-wide old millstone, set with bar stools, divides this space from the dining room. It reminds me of a menhir from an Asterix comic, turned on its side and set up for one of our heroes’ wild-boar feasts.
The decibel level of the tap room made my heart sink the first time I walked in. But Irving Mill’s acoustics are cleverly designed so the noise from the bar doesn’t intrude on the dining room. Comfortable circular banquettes covered in beige cloth line the walls on either side. Since the neighborhood is named for Washington Irving, they’re printed with his signature and inscrutable lines from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
It’s an appropriate touch: If Rip van Winkle had fallen asleep in Gramercy Tavern back in the mid-1990s, he might well have imagined he’d woken up there now. For Irving Mill has many similarities with that restaurant, beginning with the tap room and the chef. John Schaefer worked for Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern, starting in 1994, and took over as executive chef in 2000. So I came to Irving Mill with high expectations.
Indeed, the first night I ate here I was bowled over by the food. We began with a lively stew of New Zealand cockles laced with spicy chorizo, mustard greens and roasted tomatoes. Rich, creamy chicken-liver pate was spread on crostini, served with smoked bacon, quince, arugula and balsamic vinegar. Arctic char—a rare, pink wedge—arrived on a bed of lentils with savoy cabbage, speck and cippolini cooked in red wine sauce. Meaty slices of Muscovy duck breast with quinoa were garnished with piquant slices of meyer lemon. For dessert, a soufflé-like chocolate bread pudding and a moist, light zucchini cake (not what your sophomore girlfriend makes at college) served with a tart orange marmalade, orange sorbet and toffee walnuts completed this marvelous meal.
I was equally impressed with the wine list (even though it’s not exactly cheap). It consists of approximately 180 bottles, with a focus on French, Italian and Spanish, and many interesting out-of-the-ordinary choices.
The service at Irving Mill is first rate, friendly and professional, not to mention enthusiastic. “The press has been very favorable about the quail,” announced our waiter one evening as he handed us menus.
“Do you trust the press?”
“No,” he replied. “Actually, I read it in a blog.”
I didn’t ask him which of the countless food blogs he had consulted. But the blogger was right about the quail, which was split and grilled, served on a bed of cheddar cheese grits with smoked paprika. One night, it came with a relish made with sweet corn; on another, it was made with green tomato and was equally good.
But then there’s a downside. Some dishes seemed misconceived from the start, such as a thin and flavorless celery root chowder laced with radishes. Marinated mushrooms were served, for no good reason I could discern, with ricotta cheese, along with frisée and grilled bread, disparate ingredients seemingly put together at random. And how, I wondered, could a kitchen that served the perfect arctic char produce such a dry, overcooked piece of striped bass a week later?
There were other disappointments. A grilled pork chop with the rubbery consistency of squid, mushy braised rabbit like a 1950’s hostess’ signature party dish, and short ribs stringy as rope.
The desserts are by pastry chef Colleen Grapes, who has worked at the Red Cat, the Sea Grill, Dressler in Williamsburg, and Ono. They include a terrific black currant tea chocolate mousse topped with sea salt, and a soft pistachio semifreddo served in the shape of a roll. Greek yogurt panna cotta was drenched in something that tasted like hair oil, and we pushed it away. But the peanut butter and milk chocolate caramel parfait, laced with meringue and brittle, was a winner, gone in seconds.
Comfortable booths, gorgeous flowers, good lighting, fine service: Irving Mill has it almost all right. I know Mr. Schaefer is a great chef; I’ve eaten his food at Gramercy Tavern. Is it just a matter of time before he gets his menu right? Let’s hope so.