Barnyard Charm

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Irving Mill
116 E. 16th St. (at Irving Place)

In this new era of eco-consciousness, the New York culinary scene has, inevitably, gone “green.” Out are the glitzy fusion palaces and sushi shrines of the first half of the decade. In their place has arrived a surfeit of restaurants devoted to fresh produce, barnyard staples and rustic charms.

Among the new arrivals is Irving Mill, which opened this winter on 16th Street east of Union Square. The name, a shrewd play on location (off Irving Place), time (Washington Irving chronicled the country’s formative years) and setting (what better to evoke “country” than a mill?), suggests that this is a highly polished venture where nothing is left to chance.

Irving Mill’s press materials describe its design as “Old World Clean.” The label is apt, if disingenuous. The restaurant’s vaulted spaces—an open bar up front, a raised “Front Tap Room” for casual dining, and a more formal dining room in back—have plenty of well-executed pastoral details. Wagon-wheel chandeliers plunge from the ceilings, and farm tools lie scattered about. But the overall effect feels too deliberate, as if the theme were the point rather than a backdrop.

Taken as a whole, however, the impact is pleasant and romantic. Soft light cloaks diners in warmth, and the beamed ceilings, gorgeous wood-paneled floors and antique tables and chairs prime diners for the market-based fare. The only jarring note is the 1980s-style graffitied banquets that line the dining room. Neither “Old World” nor “clean,” it’s anyone’s guess how they were meant to fit in thematically.

The executive chef at Irving Mill, John Schaefer, a longtime veteran of Gramercy Tavern, has created a menu that hews to the seasons (with notable exceptions) and includes both hits and misfires. Among appetizers, the grilled quail ($16) was a standout: thick lumps of meat sunken into a base of cheddar cheese grits, garnished with green tomato relish and smoked paprika. Also good were heart-stopping (in more ways than one) ricotta dumplings ($13), with rutabaga, speck and brown butter.

Less successful was a concession to daintier diners: a citrus-cured hamachi ($16) that tasted too fishy and seemed out of place. “It’s an odd choice for this menu,” a friend remarked. “Maybe the yellow-tail is farm-raised.” Ha. In fact, no. According to the waiter, all of the fish selections—with the exception of the Arctic char—are wild.
The main courses were equally inconsistent, from the extraordinary—a braised rabbit with garlic sausage and potato puree ($24)—to the disappointing: a braised lamb shank with wild mushrooms and orecchiette ($28).
Preparing rabbit can be a bitch. There are fewer cuts to choose from, and the quality of the meat can vary. Schaefer’s rabbit was uniformly tender, braised to perfection; and the accompaniments added just the right notes of heft and nuance. The lamb should have been an easier dish, but the meat was overcooked, tough and clung to the bone, as if it had been rushed at high heat rather than simmered over the course of an afternoon.

For dessert, diners can choose among sweets or a selection of French and Spanish cheeses. Highlights of the former include a sticky toffee cake with butterscotch custard and crème fraiche ($9) and a peanut butter and chocolate caramel parfait ($9). Cheeses include a raclette (cow/France), queso de aracena (goat/Spain) and abbaye de Belloc (sheep/France). (The wine list includes a global selection of reds and whites from $40 to $325 per bottle.)

On my first visit to Irving Mill, a bustling Thursday night in January, the restaurant was abuzz with energy, and the soft, light aromas and exceptional service coalesced into the type of evening where the food, if adequate, becomes secondary. On my second visit, an early evening downpour had caused numerous cancellations.
The dining room was hushed and empty. A restaurant’s success on a night like this—or at least one with Irving Mill’s ambitions—depends on the kitchen’s originality and flawless execution. For the moment, Irving Mill falls short. But in the world of greenmarket dining, there’s always hope for next season.

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