The Barn is Burning at Chalk Point Kitchen
Chalk Point's food plays rustic pan-Asian.
It really was my fault. I'd entered without a reservation. I was a walk-in. The hostesses looked back and forth between a computer and a near-empty dining room.
"OK, well," she began, "I guess we'll seat you anyway."
If it was an attempt at dry humor, I felt soaked with a cooler's worth of haterade. Of the many odd things about Chalk Point Kitchen, by far the most disappointing is that it hides its best attributes under a soul-crushing hay bale of farm-to-table ennui. (To be fair, a smile was cracked a few days later.)
Matt Levine is running the show, so there's kale juice in my $15 martini. You may remember him from The Eldridge, Sons of Essex, and last year's Cocktail Bodega debacle, which resulted in closure of the venue and an ongoing $20 million lawsuit against Levine's former partner, real estate investor Michael Shah, who is also being pursued by the New York State Liquor Authority to have his liquor licenses revoked.
Levine poached Sons of Essex bartender William Bastian for this venture, and the man has more fun with manipulated produce than a Monsanto scientist. That martini features apple vodka, ginger beer, and a cadre of juices (cucumber, celery, lemon, lime) along with the bitter leafy green. It's drinkable, but it also tastes like a group of brassica-chewing cowboys used a bucket of appletinis as a spittoon.
This is what happens when hospitality companies focus their energy on making YouTube videos in which executive assistants discuss how "we are growing our own plants and flowers." The picnic checkerboard motif and flea market-procured countrified knickknacks that adorn natural wood walls and painted wood tables feel disingenuous, like an Epcot restaurant's corporatized Americana. As if in some agricultural lobbyist's nightmare, the farmer and daughter from Grant Wood's American Gothic stare at you in the bathroom. The downstairs saloon, now leather-covered and called the Handy Bar, has already hosted a slew of celebrity clients thanks to its proximity to the Tribeca Film Festival.
Service upstairs borders on affability but is ultimately gracious and attentive. Servers guide diners through chef Joe Isidori's lengthy menu, the top right corner of which is emblazoned with the names of the 20 or so vendors that supply the restaurant. Chalk Point's food is "Chinatown meets the Union Square Greenmarket," your server may tell you, and Isidori installed Blue Hill and Mas (farmhouse) vet Freddy Schoen-Kiewert to help execute that vision.
For the most part, the duo succeeds, even if the food plays more like rustic pan-Asian. Chunks of peekytoe crab and avocado are bound with mirin and shiso leaf, lush, briny sweetness against the minty herb and a trio of lotus root chips. A Vietnamese steak salad zaps fresh sprouts with lime, roasted peanuts, and creamy sriracha dressing. But the beef tataki isn't cut into strips, looking like a shredded baseball glove when pulled apart despite tasting perfectly fine. Kudos, though, for composing a charcuterie plate that hides soft slices of smoked and cured ham under apple slices, lemon zest, and a showering of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano and sesame seeds. Grilled squid was the only out-and-out failure, its sweet and sour Thai flavors marred by a heavy hand with the fish sauce.
Since opening in April, the kitchen has expanded its selection of "vegetables to share," which lists 12 side dishes ranging from $8 radishes to $15 king trumpet mushrooms. If you're lucky, they'll have the decadent tangle of kale stewed collard-style with pulled pork that was a special one night.
Although it sits on a lame bed of carrot slaw drowned in bright dill buttermilk, the rice-crusted rainbow trout is a fine and summery piece of fried fish. It fared much better than overcooked arctic char, which was indistinguishable under a white miso glaze. Roast chicken boasts flawlessly crisp skin and juicy interior. It's laid over bok choy and comes with a cocotte of velvety mashed potatoes. Pickled peppers border on aggressive, threatening to drown out an otherwise moist, flavorful pork chop. Cold smoke proves to be a masterful twist for seared duck breast with amarena cherries.
Slightly curdled butterscotch pudding doesn't need a scoop of vanilla ice cream to compound the mess, although duck-fat popcorn provides a nice contrast. Besides that and a coconut panna cotta, there are three sundaes on offer, all riffs on Italian desserts. The tortoni builds on Marcona almond ice cream, and an affogato gets dulce de leche. My table's favorite, the spumoni, pairs pistachio ice cream with hot fudge and more amarena cherries.
The kitchen means well and often follows through, but Chalk Point Kitchen is a farm-to-table film set for a movie that needs to end.
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