Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pork, pork, and more pork at Irving Mill

On Tuesday evening, I met my team from work at Irving Mill for a project-end dinner extravaganza. I had heard good things about Irving Mill, particularly their burger (you know, for other members of the group), so I was excited to test out what the place had to offer.

First off-- it's a very pretty space. It's rustically decorated, has good energy but isn't not too loud, and has several different seating areas to break up the room. The hostess was extraordinarily flexible with our party as we adjusted the numbers and seating time right up until we finally started to trickle into the restaurant one by one. They seated our incomplete party happily (no attitude there, ahem, Kashkaval), and we began ordering appetizers.

In the meantime, a runner brought over a few platters of bread. The bread was really, really good-- tender and chewy on the inside with a good crust, all set off perfectly by the soft salted butter. I could easily have eaten several pieces of this had I a) been hungrier and b) not been anticipating the flood of dishes to come.

Yummy, yummy bread

One by one, the apps started to arrive. First-- the marinated olives. These were tasty, fresh olives, not drowning in olive oil (which is nice), and dangerously poppable. I ate a significant quantity of these.

Covered in little olivey bits

Then came the pork toasts with egg salad and caviar. These were deeply friend and suspiciously square. General agreement was that they were tasty, but I must admit I am wary of anything that looks like a filet-o-fish sandwich at McDonald's, even if it has caviar on top.

They look like coasters

The salt and pepper pork ribs were next. Surprisingly, especially at a restaurant that is so pork-centric as Irving Mill, these weren't all that popular. I'm not sure why-- maybe it was something about gnawing on a bone at a work function, but whatever the reason, there were ribs remaining at the end of the night.

The last kid picked in dodgeball

The group also ordered the crudo of fluke, which came with beet tartare, pecans, and grapes. The fish lovers among us had quite positive things to say about this dish. Props to Irving Mill for diversifying its portfolio with this fish offering.

This pretty crudo wasn't just a fluke. Or WAS IT? Yuk yuk yuk.

Annnnd... back to pork. Perhaps not surprisingly, the spicy pulled pork sandwiches on potato buns were wildly popular. I mean, who doesn't like pulled pork? Except for me, I mean. But that doesn't count.

Porky innards on fluffy buns

As another concession to haters (i.e., vegetarians) like me, we ordered the eggplant and ricotta bruschetta. Sadly, this was disappointing. The bread was thick and had clearly been toasted but was now slightly soggy. The ricotta had absolutely no flavor, and the eggplant was also oddly flavorless and a bit chewy. Perhaps some sort of spice would have livened this up-- or some sort of change in texture (some sauce?) or temperature (the slices were tepid when they arrived).

So sad, as I love eggplant, ricotta, AND bread

So much for the appetizer course, and on to the entrees. For mine, I had selected the spinach, baby shittake, and artichoke salad with tomatoes and pecorino (dressing on the side). Sadly, there were several problems with this salad. First of all, there were no artichokes, something I just realized right now when looking back over the menu descriptions. Second, the mushrooms were gross-- huge chunks of basically raw mushroom, not seasoned, not cooked, not sliced, nothing. The tomatoes were standard, and the pecorino was good but paltry. So mainly this salad tasted like raw spinach. The dressing was mostly oil and didn't add much. Definitely wouldn't recommend this menu item.

Where, oh where, are the artichokes?

Other people were more successful in their entree selections. SG had selected the sunchoke and hazelnut soup to start, and I sniped several tastes of this delicious, incredibly creamy, hearty, and filling soup. I wish I had ordered this, frankly.

Stunningly beautiful AND delicious

SG followed up the soup with the herb and parmesan chicken with artichoke barigoule and black olives, which he shared with ES in exchange for some of her Loup de Mer (which came with quinoa, preserved lime, walnuts, and soybean). Both dishes were declared delicious.

Chicken, with some artichoke action going on underneath

Gorgeous loup de mer on a smear of green

DC had selected the all-important burger, which he thoroughly enjoyed. My only (vicarious) gripe with the burger is that the portion of fries was tiny, and they were the kind I don't like as much (skin-on wedges as opposed to crispy shoestrings). But DC approved, and since he was eating it, that's what matters.

Burger hiding behind fries

The Niman Ranch Bavette Steak also made an appearance at our table. Didn't get much of a review on this one, but at least it looked pretty.

Well carved

The surprise star of the meal, at least from my perspective, was the side of mac & cheese PB ordered. He offered me a taste, and I ended up sniping a good portion of this (sorry PB!). Yes, there were pork rinds in here (natch), but I picked them out and focused on the pasta and cheese. I haven't eaten much mac & cheese in the past few years, but good lord, this stuff was heavenly. The pasta was fully cooked-- none of this "al dente" BS that always ruins good mac & cheese-- and the sauce was mild and thick and rib-sticking. This is certainly the best mac & cheese I've had in a very, very long time, possibly ever, and I might venture to nominate this humble side as the best mac & cheese in the city. Take issue with that designation? Prove me wrong, people. Prove me wrong.

Oh, sweet and lovely mac & cheese, how I miss thee

I wasn't able to stay for the entire dinner, so I missed the dessert course. But during the time I was there, we certainly had a good time at Irving Mill. Aside from minor service mishaps (involving the mis-pouring of red wine all over the table and onto members of our party), the experience was delightful, and for lovers of pork, the food was spectacularly porky. If the vegetarian food (the bruschetta, the salad) had been as good as the meat courses, Irving Mill could be a four Offset Spatula restaurant, but from my perspective I think it will have to settle for three. If you love pork, go to Irving Mill and go (ahem) hog-wild. If you like mac & cheese, go try that beautiful dish. But if neither of those appeals, there are probably better options for you.

Irving Mill
116 E. 16th Street, near Union Square East

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