Is it possible to love a restaurant for a single innovation? That’s the question that occurred to me as I finished up my fourth meal at Cookshop, a second project of the folks who brought you Five Points. Located amid garages and late-night discos in a part of Chelsea that still feels like the wild frontier despite the invasion of a zillion art galleries to the north, Cookshop adopts a disarmingly plain name and decor. The L-shaped room is painted myriad dull shades from ivory to beige; on a shelf below the ceiling march a military file of pygmy lifeless trees. Oh, bury me on the lone prairie. The restaurant’s identity package is catnip to the artists, gallery owners, and art lovers who throng the place each evening. Who can blame them for being tired of bright colors?
So, what’s the innovation that so excites me? Not the entrées, which assort themselves into four categories based on cooking method (sauté, wood oven, grill, and rotisserie), ranging from mediocre to pretty damn good. In a mediocre vein is the mushroom pot pie ($20), wherein a thick creamy gravy blots out the delicate flavor of a distinguished mushroom assortment, just like an impatient young heir might smother his sleeping grandmother with a pillow. Pretty damn good describes an entrée of Vermont suckling pig, on a menu that subscribes to the modern mania for identifying raw materials by source—as if you cared that the asparagus, say, came from the Marquis de Sade Organic Farms in Piscataway, New Jersey. Proffered in thick slices, the pig is stuffed with herbs in the manner of an Italian porchetta, and the generous quantity almost feels like a bargain at $26. The bronzed skin is rendered greasy and crisp, which is the entire point of suckling pig.
Aside from making too much of beans and, in an Atkinsy way too common today, substituting root vegetables where potatoes or noodles should be, the menu chugs along in a predictable fashion through a far-flung terrain of soups and salads and steaks and chicken and fish. Woo woo goes the whistle on the culinary engine, passing baby squid plashing in a lumpy pool of white beans, lobster snuggling somewhat illicitly with scallops, and a rotisserie chicken disappointingly served with carrots, turnips, and brussels sprouts. I want my spuds!
But here is what I love about Cookshop. At the top of a menu is a category called Snacks. Priced around $5, these small savory dishes are not only delicious, but solve many dining dilemmas. Not in the mood to eat two giant courses before arriving at dessert? Substitute the festive deviled egg for your app. Early on, it came topped with caviar, but a more recent incarnation features the schmalz-fried tidbits of chicken skin called gribenes. Want to save a little money but still eat lots? Grab the fried hominy: a long plate of spongy white kernels dusted with chile powder, making one of the world’s great bar snacks, more voluminous than many of the official appetizers. Then there are tiny duck taquitos, and a miniature hamburger, too, though the latter has been ejected from a menu that has been changing constantly since Cookshop’s debut. Recently returned to the snacking menu is homemade liverwurst, a pair of thick rounds served with dark bread and onion marmalade. Heck, for $5, it could be my whole lunch.