A little girl is standing at the entrance to Foragers City Table and reading the menu to her father as he taps away on his BlackBerry. “Hey, Daddy, what’s crépinettes? What’s yuzu? What’s prickly ash?” He doesn’t know the answers, and he isn’t in the mood to look them up, so eventually they go elsewhere for dinner.
It’s a shame, because the new Chelsea restaurant could have fed them well. The consulting chef, Douglas Monsalud, runs a catering company in San Francisco and uses Asian ingredients in that easygoing Californian way. He employs only a touch of heat, and the menu appears to have been edited for a G rating. Those crépinettes, for example, would have been ideal to keep two small hands busy: a couple of sausage patties cooked in a lacy petticoat of caul fat that arrive with spears of raw cucumber, crushed peanuts, lettuce cups, and a nuoc cham sauce made soft with Meyer lemon juice ($12). A Red Wattle pork porterhouse from Canaan Farm, served in slices beside the bone, would also have pleased a kid—the super-sweetness of the caramel glaze and the chew of good pork that has been brined in cider, seasoned generously, and not overcooked ($24).
The restaurant is attached to a small, upscale grocery store, Foragers City Grocer. Husband-and-wife team Richard Lamb and Anna Castellani opened the original in DUMBO in 2005 with partner Clifford Shikler. Together, they manage a 28-acre farm in Columbia County that supplies the two stores with vegetables and foraged produce. The shop also stocks expensive pints of artisanal ice creams and jars of fancy salad dressings, fat-capped terrines, and house-made pastrami. You shouldn’t be surprised to see the cross-sectioned face of a pig hanging upside down in the aging room beside the butcher’s counter—breaking down an animal or two a week for the shop and ordering in additional cuts for the restaurant, Terry Ragasa of Greene Grape and Fleisher’s is the head butcher.
The food at Foragers City Table might not be transcendent, but it can be satisfying. For every dreary dish, like the vinegary lamb belly on a ho-hum brick of polenta or the sticky noodles served with wilty lettuce, there’s a more exciting one. A chopped salad of Little Gem arrives surrounded by fun playmates: a teaspoon of fermented tea leaves, crispy dried shrimp, slices of fried garlic, sunflower seeds, fried split peas, and peanuts ($15). Toss them all together for a rainbow of texture and flavor, and you’ll be honeymooning all the way to the last bite.
“Almost everything here comes from our farm,” the waiter tells us, and he is beaming like a birthday boy. Later, when he’s delivering a dish we considered ordering to another table, he walks by to let us see what we’re missing and gives us a thumbs-up. A bit of goofy enthusiasm helps Foragers get away with its twee emphasis on sourcing locally. It also helps that the restaurant is noisy and casual, rather than a temple to its fine ingredients. It has the feeling of a dressed-up diner, with seating at the bar along the open kitchen and more tables by the walls of glass looking onto 22nd Street. The prices, however, aren’t diner prices. Five dollars is criminally high for a teacup’s worth of potato chips, even if delicate crisps of fingerlings fried in chicken fat, topped with yuzu salt and fried sage, and accompanied by a glass of Riesling on tap, are a lovely way to begin unwinding after work.
This being New York, the tables are also too close together, though it’s not always an intrusion. On a recent night, I was seated next to a chatty couple who were delighted with their meal and wanted to make sure I was getting the ribs. The Berkshire pork is braised until tender, then finished in a hot wok, and it comes by the bowlful, dressed in a peppery sweet-and-sour glaze ($15). As the couple was leaving, my dining companion couldn’t resist tapping the lady on the shoulder to tell her how much he’d enjoyed the recommendation.
Foragers’ dessert menu is limited to gelati and sorbets from Il Laboratorio del Gelato, and a single, gorgeous scoop of ice cream is a noble way to end any meal, especially when there’s no pastry chef in the house. But an order of Campari-grapefruit sorbet came to the table as if scraped together from the freezer-burned relics of an old, empty tub: a solid, stingy crumble. The dissatisfied sweet tooth should remember that Foragers has a freezer aisle, stocked with great pints, and the grocery store is always on your way out.