When Carl McCoy and chef Justin Hilbert opened Gwynnett St. barely two years ago, they took the territory by storm. Theirs was a gastronomic kingdom worth crossing the bridge to Brooklyn for: “Manhattan-style food!” exclaimed the critics, having wiped their plates clean. City diners flooded in for a taste, and for a time, the restaurant enjoyed peace and prosperity.
But patrons have a fickle tongue, and critics enjoy but an early taste. When the newness wore off, word circulated that Gywnnett struggled to profit, that McCoy sought to downscale operations while keeping an ambitious spirit — rumors that, in a recent conversation, McCoy would neither confirm nor deny. By spring 2013, Hilbert had abandoned his post, leaving sous chef Owen Clark to command the kitchen. The restaurant marched forward, but dragons lurked at the edge of the forest.
Soon, McCoy was immersed in scandal. In December, federal agents arrested him when a package filled with drugs with his name on it landed at JFK Airport. McCoy’s defense attorney Michelle Gelernt confirms that the case is pending in federal court, but McCoy refuses comment.
The media ran with the story; within two weeks, Clark and his cooks fled the kitchen, and lonely McCoy drew the bridge to Gwynnett St. just before the holidays. He returned in January, flanked by chef Alexis Krisel (formerly of Allswell). They rechristened the kingdom Lachlan, and Krisel leads the charge with a sharp new menu. Gone is Gwynnett’s acclaimed $120 tasting option, replaced with smart pub finery that’s nuanced and affordable.
Find smatterings of Middle Eastern flavor throughout; Krisel, whose blood flows from the Fertile Crescent, plays fluidly with spice — a tender breast of Amish duck ($19), brined in burnt citrus, nutmeg, and clove, brings warm olfactory allure — while a springy bowl of charred octopus ($13), slow-braised in tea and pinked and sweetened with beet, grounds itself in a heady swipe of turmeric-tinged yogurt flecked with mint.
The chef reserves his sharpest sword for slaying organ meats. A silky chicken liver mousse musks in the mouth as it melts, brightened by a touch of winey vinegar. Spread it generously on grilled whiskey bread — the sole holdover from that earlier, gilded era — for an indulgence at a modest $6. Krisel grinds those same livers into a pleasant pork shoulder terrine ($11), bacon-wrapped, poached, and served à la française with dijon, cornichon, and relish. Ice-cold, it’s a worthy pâté, but as it warms, nutmeg and juniper, folded into the seasoning, release their hidden aromas.
Krisel fearlessly presents beef tongue ($10) as a steaky slab, taste buds intact. It looks bare and unrefined, but its tenderness evidences days in brine and hours in the oven. It’s pink as a ham, and you’ll cut it with a fork. Hold it in your mouth to soak up the flavor.
McCoy’s service is kind but anonymous, preferring to stay back and speak when spoken to, though they keep a vigilant watch. Memorable moments can be clumsy — one waiter laments some indiscernible problem with our bread, brings a new loaf once we’ve devoured the first, and apologizes again, to our total confusion. But the staff seem good-natured and eager to please, delivering hearty, easy-to-eat food.
Entrées are to the point but plated with flair: Two hefty short ribs ($19), braised until they fall from the bone without help from a knife, perch in a pool of velvety, slow-cooked polenta with plump little carrots. I’m taken with the cornmeal, a blissful expression of salted creaminess.
Hiding beneath a fillet of striped bass ($18), skin on and browned to a light crisp, is a delicate cauliflower purée, warm and nutty against the fish. But beware the radicchio: She’s a sexy red streak on the plate but bitingly bitter. Opt instead for a side of Brussels sprouts ($6), studded with dates and bacon and caramelized with a splash of maple syrup for a sticky-sweet treat that’ll shore up any entrée Krisel sends afield.
Most of the menu is clean, straight-shooting food, but there are a few misfires. A scant bowl of house-made pappardelle ($16) tossed with guanciale, stewed leeks, and dollops of smooth ricotta, is approachable, but two bites in, it’s an oily mess, flaccid and flabby. And to end the meal with crème brûlée ($6) is a mistake here. The flavor works — subtle vanilla, not too sweet — but beneath the sugar crust, Krisel’s is a broken custard, scrambled and eggy.
But these are small misses, and no war is won without casualties. And, while Lachlan’s receipts still read “Gwynnett St.,” it rings as both epitaph and edict: Gwynnett St. is dead; long live Gwynnett St.