No longer the subject of lengthy trend pieces, pop-up restaurants have become all but commonplace. If anything, their presence is on the wane in New York, replaced by über pop-up event spaces such as Sarah Simmons’s City Grit, Res from Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, and even David Santos’s Nossa Mesa at Louro, making for an endless rotation of fly-by-night kitchens.
On the surface, Malt n Mash in the meatpacking district appears to be a pop-up. It’s not.
Welcome to the age of the practice restaurant. The Line Group, a hospitality entity owned by real estate whale Michael Shah, operates a number of properties, including downtown hotspot Sons of Essex and a collection of establishments on the same stretch of Gansevoort Street: The Raven (a nightclub), an events space dubbed 55 Gans, and Malt n Mash. Shah — who, incidentally, is being sued by former partner Matt Levine for $20 million — recently purchased 69 Gansevoort down the street. The historic building will serve as home base for 44 Acres, the permanent restaurant from Malt n Mash’s chef, Nahid Ahmed.
For now, though, we have Malt n Mash, although it’s not entirely clear what that means. Ahmed cooked for Gray Kunz and spent time in some heavyweight kitchens like El Bulli, The Fat Duck, and Lespinasse. So why are we eating a roulade of foie gras with smears of chipotle peanut butter and curry-apricot jam to the deafening beat of Taio Cruz’s “Hangover” with a refrigerated display case of Red Bull in the background? Geography is surely the answer, but the tone seems off for the style of food, and the blaring music resonates with profundity in a nearly empty room during prime time on a Friday night. The restaurant may be temporary, but it’s surprising to see a basket of paper towels hanging from a screw plugged into the wall, the anchors and outline of the hand dryer that used to be there still visible.
The food, too, seems incomplete. That foie gras is all velvet and cream, but the dish’s accents hardly register, resulting in something altogether one-note. There’s simply not enough smoky peanut butter or curried fruit to stand up to the organ meat. It’s a struggle to find the corn flavor in popcorn grits, which lay the foundation for inert sweetbreads, expertly crisp but lacking salt. Whatever gripes there are to be had about the food, Ahmed does construct it with an artist’s eye. Although their starchiness doesn’t meld well with the milky sweetbreads, sturdy shavings of raw cauliflower look like coral with jewels of golden beet scattered around.
Consistency is an issue. There wasn’t one dish we sampled that didn’t have a few good elements marred by a glaring error. Cutting into thick cylinders of octopus reveals that the cephalopod statues are actually four tentacles fused together with the meat glue known as transglutaminase. All that wizardry comes at a cost: The magic enzyme can’t save this chewy octopus with rather bland flesh. A plank of crispy duck skin and a smooth cocoa bean purée are the only respites, gamey fat and earthy bean acting as a flavor bridge.
Larger plates find no surer footing because of similar failures in execution. Duck prosciutto is luscious on its own, but the dish is supposed to be a sandwich, and the cured fowl registers as a major letdown when served inside bread so incinerated it looks like an arsonist’s plaything. An accompanying tangle of mixed greens falls equally flat in a pallid citrus vinaigrette. Salmon comes in a dainty portion, the edges cooked through and enlivened by tart blueberry sauce and charred leek, but the interior of the fish is raw. Still, that blueberry sauce could be bottled.
The list of cocktails, beer, and wines is brief, but several selections prove pleasant, including a 2010 S.A. Prüm Kabinett Riesling and Goose Island Matilda, a Belgian-style pale ale. The bar also features the Heineken Extra Cold Draught system, which serves the Dutch mainstay at temperatures between 29 and 32 degrees, but Bud Light seems an odd choice for pairing with ingredients like scallion ash and negro mole.
For dessert, we encountered a slightly chalky young coconut panna cotta with chunks of liquid-nitrogen-frozen mango mousse in a pool of dulce de leche. The coconut flavor was pronounced and refreshing, but despite the slivers of fresh mango, the dessert approached cloying.
Launched in August, Malt n Mash will be a memory come 2014. Even for a restaurant in flux, it feels unfinished, a trussed-up, progressive turkey with all the MePa trimmings: loud sounds and fist-bumping, signifying nothing. Perhaps with a permanent residence, the staff will be able to settle in and do a bit more damage control to give Ahmed’s food a less slippery dance floor.