Long rows of glowing brown spirits. Men in jackets clinking scotch glasses over a table of steaks. Maysville is a sharp whiskey-centric bar, but it’s no gentlemen’s club. There are plenty of women here, too, in shift dresses and stockings, jeans, and wool sweaters, plonking ice into Tennessee whiskey and rye, or sipping sweet, cold Sazeracs.
Maysville is named for a port town in Kentucky where America’s bourbon distillers sent their extra barrels to be sold along the Ohio River. If not exactly the birthplace of bourbon (liquor history and marketing mythology get tangled up), it was crucial to the spirit’s development. Now it’s also a good spot in the Flatiron district to sip corn juice—including Old Pogue, which brought production back to the town of Maysville just last year when it began distilling for the first time since Prohibition.
Kyle Knall, a young chef from Birmingham, Alabama, runs the kitchen and doesn’t waste time on the twee, lardy Southern food of our collective imagination—no mason jars, no pies on gingham. Knall came up under Frank Stitt, then went to work for Michael Anthony: This is modern, refined, Southern-inspired cooking via Gramercy Tavern. Knall has Anthony’s reverence for local vegetables, always accompanying moderate portions of meat with several kinds of beans, greens, mushrooms, and tubers, and often pickling whatever is growing at the moment to elevate and brighten a dish.
The kitchen’s excellent pork-and-shrimp sausage ($21), gently smoked and served on a bed of red rice slick with duck liver and collard greens, could go dark and heavy. Instead, it’s lit up with red wine vinegar and jalapeño pickling juice. (Although a hungry diner might complain that, for its small size, the dish is misplaced in the entrée section.) A ceramic bowl of soft, good grits ($12) under a light duck broth is another standout, arranged with duck confit, crisp pom-poms of hen of the woods, and an egg so soft it can barely keep it together. Wee hay-roasted oysters ($13), which are shucked and presented in fine form, are clean and vinegary. What a delight to eat roasted oysters that actually taste of oysters—not butter! It means other flavors shine through, too, like salsify and smoked hay.
There is a trout ($24), silver and gleaming with a tiny monster jaw, served with a few charred onion slices and pickled mushrooms. Its skin is crisp, its flesh sweet and pink. Like many of the dishes at Maysville, the trout’s smoke is a delicate accessory, a dab of perfume, and it never obliterates. Knall uses a proper large smoker for whole birds, pork shoulders, and other big cuts, but a small box smoker to quietly get the flavor across to the fish, a technique he picked up in Anthony’s kitchen.
You’ll want to order some appetizers, too, like the fine brussels sprout salad ($12) in just enough lemon and buttermilk dressing, dotted with a few small cubes of pig ear gone melty inside. Or the wrinkly, charred root vegetables with a thin cloud of goat cheese and chewy barley ($13), topped with sunflower seeds suspended in caramelized sugar. On a recent evening, that brittle appeared a second time with a slice of foie gras torchon. This time, it was perhaps less welcome: Too much sharing of ingredients among dishes and they can start to look alike and weaken, like incestuous aristocrats.
Although the small menu could be reconfigured a bit to better reflect portion size and avoid any repetition, Maysville is a restaurant to visit and enjoy immediately. Knall is a partner here with the whiskey-loving Sean Josephs and Brad Danler of Brooklyn’s Char No 4., and the team leads a professional, eager-to-please waitstaff in a warm, welcoming dining room. Renee Faris’s desserts are thoughtful. A chocolate custard ($9) is dense and soft, deeply flavored, and a bowl of sharp apple granita, stitched through with tarragon, pairs happily with the last drink of the night.
What a change to end a meal on a light, fresh note. To be reminded at a whiskey bar that excess isn’t essential to pleasure.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.