Jesse Schenker opened West Village jewel box Recette at age 27, and in the four years since, he’s expanded both his family and restaurant group while shedding nearly one-third his body weight. The man is determined, and through his Schenker & Schenker hospitality, which the chef runs with his father, Scott, he’s opened The Gander, a spacious sophomore effort that by today’s standards qualifies as “big box” thanks to its Flatiron address.
Sitting on a bland stretch of West 18th Street, The Gander is a cheeky recalibration of sorts. Initially planned as “The Goose,” Schenker and his wife and partner, Lindsay Schenker, had first sought equally roomy confines on West 20th Street, then home to the glitter-stained ruins of a nightclub. With plenty of skyscrapers and large warehouses, the neighborhood eventually provided. Still, I wonder if there’s equally expansive real estate in areas where entrées don’t have to edge into $40 territory, even if those two Jacksons do get you a massive, uncut, dry-aged sirloin steak with a whole roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom bouquet. As such a departure from the flagship, with its high ceilings and dining rooms that extend a good one-third of a city block, the space ultimately sets the tone of what the family Schenker is trying to accomplish here.
The end goal seems to be a restaurant that bills itself as casual while doing a piss-poor job at hiding its upper-crust trimmings, as if the prince pretending to be a pauper forgot to remove his jewels. With kitchens and venues downsizing thanks to real estate woes, The Gander’s barroom alone is practically palatial, with a backlit, hulking white marble centerpiece featuring an Enomatic wine dispenser and plush seats. For nearby professionals, that front area is a no-brainer long lunch or after-work stop. Michael Flannery’s brief cocktail list runs six deep, but the options are balanced between flavors and spirit choices, utilizing boutique ingredients like oleo saccharum and baked apple bitters. Sip a $30 taste of 2001 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese while working your way through a charcuterie assortment that includes aioli-slicked lobster slivers on brioche toast, heady lamb pastrami with mustard and bright sauerkraut, and a breaded log of gelatinous pig face pieces.
You’ll find the charcuterie on a menu sidebar that also includes cheese and a selection of snacks. Clocking in at $9, a miniature tureen of tater tots filled with shredded brisket and garnished with horseradish cream is substantial for the price. The opposite was true for thrillingly balanced buffalo-style sweetbreads, a dish popularized at Recette. Despite a playful, back-of-the-throat tingling spice, the shriveled nuggets we received one night didn’t let the organ meat’s creaminess balance out the assault of hot sauce and blue cheese dip. The next visit, they’d redeemed themselves.
The rest of the menu divides rather old-fashioned attention among starters, pastas, and main courses, in addition to market nouveau side dishes such as rotisserie cauliflower and French fries served with bone marrow aioli. Salads, including one with crunchy calamari and ranch dressing, dominate the appetizer section along with raw seafood. A buttoned-up mosaic of dainty spot prawn crudo, dressed simply in olive oil, chile strands, and pea tendrils, lacks the promised pucker of lemon. Look instead to the section below, where you’ll find twisted casarecce with braised rabbit and green almonds, and toasted-coconut-topped beet tortelli sitting in goat yogurt.
Graciously, entrée portions validate entrée price tags. Chewy morels, spring peas, citrusy artichokes, and caviar anoint a thick puck of flaky halibut. Exceptionally rendered duck breast is cleaved in half and served with mushy butter leeks and fig and almond purées. Between the nutty and fruit elements in the dish and the rosy duck meat and its brittle, crisp skin, it’s one of the better duck dishes I’ve tried this year. Pig comes suckling with salsa verde or as a split chop, but it was a $20 mushroom that caused a feverish plate-grab. Creamy as firm tofu but far mustier, the roasted white elf mushroom gets a sherry broth poured tableside.
Recette’s Christina Lee lends her hand to desserts. They don’t necessarily push boundaries, but I’ll be thinking of the saffron added to a banana pudding parfait during summer’s hottest days. The rest of the dessert menu, like the restaurant itself, can’t figure out if it wants to be fancy or laid-back. Whatever it is, it’s a strong showing for those who can afford it.