Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Cookshops

156 Tenth Ave.
at 20th St.


One lazy day late last summer, Spoon's parents generously offered to drive in to the city to take us out for a nice Sunday dinner. After a few unsuccessful phone calls seeking last-second reservations, we succeeded at Cookshop, a relative newcomer in Chelsea we'd heard good things about. It was a good choice. We had a sensational meal that evening: casual, delicious, and drawn from an imaginative menu with excellent service from a fun, chatty waiter who was only too happy to engage us about the menu, the neighborhood, the chef and a few other fun topics. It was one of the best meals of the summer.

So when our friends Cara and Bryan had to cancel plans for dinner at Cookshop last Saturday (hope you're feeling better, Cara!), we called an audible: rather than scrap a night out, we changed what would have been a fun dinner for four into an intimate dinner for two. Once again, Cookshop impressed us. But if consistency is the hallmark of a great restaurant, Cookshop is not quite there. In contrast to our Summer Sunday, this Winter Saturday meal was rushed, crowded and loud; and the food and service uneven at best.

There were some highlights. For an appetizer, we had razor clams served over fennel and my favorite green cerignola olives, the best dish we had all night. We also once again enjoyed a few dishes from Cookshop's "snacks" menu: fried hominy (pictured), and some sensational anchovy deviled eggs.
For our main courses, Spoon went with grilled whole Atlantic porgy, and I had the Berkshire pork chop, which I also ordered at my previous Cookshop experience and had declared the best pork chop on Earth. For dessert, pineapple upside down cake with butter pecan ice cream and an espresso.

My first Berkshire pork chop at Cookshop was served minimally, on a white plate propped up on a whole link of their own spicy, delicious pork sausage. On Saturday, however, it came on a plate covered in black beans, the chop completely smothered in a pineapple salsa. The sausage link was cut in two, depriving me of that mouthwatering pop one hears when first piercing a sausage casing. Cutting the sausage in two also served to let the juices escape, drying out the sausage noticeably from the juicy, undisturbed link I enjoyed this summer. My biggest question: why! Why take the best pork chop I've ever had, and completely obscure it, top and bottom, both its flavor and its visual appeal, with a rote, overused combination of pineapple and black beans?

Spoon's plate, meanwhile, was striking in contrast to mine. She asked that her whole fish be fileted for her, a common request, and it arrived as two filets all alone on a white plate, the spinach accompanying her fish served in a cup on the side. The fish was not terribly exciting. Minimally spiced and served, it tasted, well, fresh. Unfortunately, it was filled with little bones, virtually invisible in the restaurant's dim light. Yes, a few bones are part of the deal when ordering fish. But it is terribly frustrating to have to spit mouthful after mouthful of your $26 fish into your napkin.

Most disappointing, however, was the service. Our waiter had the faraway look of an aspiring actor just passed over for yet another soap opera. He could not have been more aloof or disinterested. When we needed a minute to decide whether or not we would drink a bottle of wine (the vintages were mostly unknown to us and there were only two under $40), he just walked away and gave us a good 15 minutes before returning to take a drink order. What, no sommelier? What's the fish like, Spoon asked? "Excellent," the Stepford waiter replied. Insightful. We like excellent fish. The worst, thing, perhaps: not one smile, or engaging word or even eye contact.

Don't feel too bad for us, however. The meal was certainly not a chore to get through. The company was of course delightful. And I still have the memory of an amazing Cookshop meal to counter this less than satisfactory Saturday dinner-rush experience. It's also hard not to root for Cookshop's owners, too, Vicki Freeman and her husband (and chef) Marc Meyer, also owners of Five Points. Their commitment to using local farmers and organic ingredients pays off when combined with Meyer's considerable culinary imagination.--F

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