A friend of mine called the other day to tell me how much she liked a new restaurant and saloon in Waldo. "I've been telling all my friends that they just have to go to Recovery."
She may well have friends who need to go into recovery (who doesn't?), but the actual name of the place she likes is Remedy Food + Drink. Atit Patel and Aaron Michaelis should consider calling their next venue Recovery — a great name for a fresh juice bar, I say — but the owners of Remedy Food + Drink are strictly focused on this project, a Chicago-style gastropub.
Now, a dozen people have tried in recent years to explain to me the concept of a gastropub, all without success. So when I heard that someone had opened one meant to be "Chicago style," I almost had to check into recovery myself. But Patel, a former investment banker, distills the concept with reassuring succinctness. "It's a bar that puts a serious focus on the food," he tells me. "It's not just cheeseburgers and french fries."
There are cheeseburgers and fries here: beautiful, crisp, hand-cut fries. There are even corn dogs. But chef Max Watson's corn dog isn't state-fair food. His menu's version is a chubby, finger-length frankfurter, handmade and dipped in a feathery cornmeal batter, then deep-fried and served with a punchy concoction of stone-ground mustard and honey.
Watson, formerly of Room 39 and Port Fonda, is just 27, and he's about to show a little youthful restlessness with an October menu remodel. He says quite a few things are coming off the list, but not the big sellers: those appetizer-sized corn dogs, the eggplant fries and the deviled eggs. His fried chicken is staying put, too. The restaurant opened in June, but Watson already understands his customer base. "Some of them are serious foodies who want to know where every ingredient comes from," he says. "Others just want a sandwich and a beer."
Not all that long ago, pretty much everyone who stepped into this ecologically friendly, glass box building wanted a sandwich and a brew — hold the sandwich. For many years, this space was occupied by a popular neighborhood bar and grill called Kennedy's, which was never noted for its cuisine. When Patel and Michaelis bought the business, they decided that this stretch of Waldo already had plenty of traditional saloons serving familiar saloon food. They were right: Waldo didn't need another Kennedy's. So they consulted Room 39's Ted Habiger and Andy Sloane, who proposed a limited, stylish menu made with locally sourced produce and meats.
The best idea that Habiger and Sloane sold to Remedy's owners was to hire Max Watson, a former Room 39 sous chef and a man with a lot of big ideas. Even if some of those ideas — Sunday brunch is one — are on the back burner.
"Max is eager to start that project," Patel says. "Brunch is his favorite meal of the day, and he loved making it at Room 39. The problem on 75th Street is, we don't have enough food storage space yet. Our kitchen area is very, very small."
It's big enough for the popular sous vide "water oven," which cooks food in plastic submerged in a hot-water bath. It's the hourlong soak in the sous vide that permits Watson to prepare one of the most unusual meatless creations in this beef-loving town.
"We wanted at least one vegetarian entrée," Watson explains. "And since Atit is very influenced by the culinary pubs he visited in Chicago, I checked menus in that city to get inspiration."
Apparently, they like cauliflower in Chicago. And Watson's cauliflower "steak" is certainly inspired. Even someone who detests the hard, bland vegetable that Mark Twain called "nothing but a cabbage with a college education" (someone like me) should be suitably impressed. It's a lengthwise slab, cooked until the flesh is fork-tender but not mushy, then sautéed in a pan until lightly golden and dappled with a spoonful of tahini. Watson serves it on a terrific salad of garbanzo beans and grilled radicchio, tossed in a dressing of yogurt and the oil created by freshly roasted herbs (including coriander, mustard seed and fennel). It's nothing like a real grilled steak, and it isn't supposed to be. And it's nothing like cauliflower, either.
Remedy isn't going to cure the urge for meat, but it has one of the city's more vegetarian-forward menus. Besides three meat-free salads, there's a daily vegetarian special, made with the latest in-season deliveries from local farmers. (Last week, those options included a beet salad and a berry sorbet.) I tried — and liked — a plate of carrot fettuccine tossed in fresh mint pesto. It was especially good with this restaurant's most popular starter: "fries" of sliced eggplant, battered and deep-fried and sprinkled with sea salt, then drizzled with local honey. Also among the appetizers are falafel and some variation on the deviled-egg motif, though the jewel-like creations I tasted last week were better with the ruby-colored snippet of smoked salmon that was available that day.
Watson says most of the meals served at Remedy are shared by patrons who are there to imbibe a cocktail or two. The entrée list is appropriately understated, with a selection of five imaginative choices. There's also a trio of robust à la carte meals: a 20-ounce, bone-in ribeye; a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp; and fried chicken.
Because it's labor-intensive, a decent breaded bird is a rare species on bar menus. But Watson is proud of his better-than-decent fowl, which he marinates for a day in tart pickle juice, then cooks in the sous vide (bagged with garlic, buttermilk and herbs) for three hours. After it comes out of the bath, he rolls the cooked bird in seasoned flour and deep-fries it for two minutes to create a golden, crispy crust. I ordered the three-piece combo one night, and the server asked if I wanted it "mild or spicy." When I couldn't make up my mind, he whispered, "The spicy isn't very spicy."
That's putting it, well, mildly. "We're still working on that issue," Watson told me later. "It's not as spicy-hot as we want it to be yet. But we don't want it too fiery."
Two of the chicken pieces — served in a bowl — were moist and delicious. The wing was tough and dry, but two out of three ain't bad. And customers so far are in agreement: Among the most-ordered dishes, the chicken is second only to Watson's slow-roasted pork shoulder. The pork was one of his specialties at Port Fonda. It's a smaller portion here, coated in a brown-sugar rub and served with pillowy hominy and bitter kale leaves. "The sweetness of the rub bridges the tartness of the kale," Watson says.
The chef knows a good combination, and he has spotted another one in the two talented cohorts working his kitchen: 31-year-old Rob Mitchell and 27-year-old Andrew Heimburger. They don't mind whipping up a batch of fresh béarnaise sauce (served with the fries) on short notice or aiding Watson in some of his clever culinary solutions.
Watson's home crew consists of two youngsters and a patient wife ("I'm not home a lot these days," he says), a kindergarten teacher. It was her idea to put a Mason-jar terrarium on every table. "A self-contained ecosystem," reads the label on each lid. "Please do not shake or open."
"Has anyone tried to steal one of these?" I asked my server one afternoon. "No," he said. His voice turned a little solemn. "But some of our drunker patrons do shake them. Or throw them." The concept here may be green ("We recycle our glass and our cardboard," Patel told me), but this is still Waldo, a peculiar ecosystem all its own.
Remedy fits the liquor-swilling landscape pretty well, though. The joint has some truly accomplished bartenders, and there's a base of patrons who appreciate a little cleverness on a menu — people who may even be able to explain gastropubs to the rest of us.
Of course, a little clever goes a long way, and there's a touch too much on the dessert menu. I'm thinking of the thick slab of angel-food cake I tried one night. It came with a glossy jumble of dehydrated strawberries, which were living out a strange half-life in a sticky jam. I didn't recognize the taste of strawberries, fresh or dried.
Far better is Remedy's signature pastry, a waffle made with chewy brownie batter and served luxuriously hot and topped with a scoop of potent, house-made apple-bourbon ice cream. And I do mean high-octane — you can taste the Jim Beam. For nondrinkers, there's a less sassy but still rich mascarpone ice cream. A couple of these sweets, and you'll be ready for a remedy, all right: a diet.