March 25, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Maysville: Smoke and Ice

Shaved foie gras tops roasted duck breast with white sweet potato log and roasted kale.
Shaved foie gras tops roasted duck breast with white sweet potato log and roasted kale.

It looks like we’re being herded to Siberia, a small back room, totally empty at this early hour, almost on top of the kitchen. At first I’m annoyed. The action at Maysville is clearly, rambunctiously, up front. Young bucks at the bar, boozing up after work, bounce off the glowing backlit wall of brown spirits at this homage to American whiskey.

Bourbon any which way and these creamy little corn biscuits set the mood.

       But then, I’m grateful for the sanctuary: quiet, no music. The four of us can actually talk in a spot where the wall is windowed, so I can catch a measured dose of the ruckus outside. A table or two fill up behind me. Velvety little corn muffins appear with butter to pile on. Also my tall Bourbon Bonnet with habanero, pineapple, cherry and brown sugar. I had asked our waitress to get the bar to tone down the sweetness. Alas, expecting a jolt of fire, I find the chili heat is turned down too.

Oysters roasted over charred hay perfumes the back room with smoke.

      “What is that wonderful smoky smell?” my friends ask the waitress. She’s in jeans and a checked shirt like the other servers, but has her own special aura of confidence. “It’s the straw burning for your oysters,” she responds, setting down a sharing platter of small, crispy grits cakes, topped with rosette flutters of thin-sliced country ham. I drag my crusty square of grits through a swath of aioli. Bourbon aioli, the menu promises. Though I can’t swear to its spiritual twitch, I’m won anyway by the mix of sweet and salt, chewy and crunchy in my mouth all at once.

Crispy grits cut into little cakes, topped with ham, on swaths of bourbon aioli.

       My assistant sent me here last November, not realizing Maysville had opened that very day. Partners Sean Josephs and Brad Danler noticed me sharing oysters on singed straw in the back forty and fussed, but the place was clearly not ready to be judged. I’m not much of a hard drinker -- Meyers rum was my spirit of choice for years till this latest cocktail craze got me tasting like a frat boy. I wasn’t moved by the house’s wall of American booze, or its barbecue, in my one excursion to this duo’s popular Char No. 4 in Brooklyn. And I didn’t rush back to their new Maysville.

Action at the backlit whiskey bar creates a din upfront all night.

       It was my pal Josephine’s choice tonight and I didn’t object. I am doubtful, eyeing the charred toast grabbed from the grill just this side of a burn, but the singe suits the saltiness of smoked fish mousse, whipped smooth and topped with briny trout roe, served in a jar.

The crab toast is with celery, radish and ginger aioli is fine but pricey at $19.

       My single oyster (of the quartet nestled in still-smoldering straw, and meant to share) slurps up too quickly. I need another or two more to fully savor the sensuality. But I’m distracted by a lush blend of crab with celery and radish in ginger aioli piled on toast, among the bowls filling up the naked table.

This Brussels sprout salad with pig ear and quail eggs was so good, we ordered seconds.

       A generous sprawl of fried Brussels sprouts salad with crispy pig’s ear, hiding small whole quail eggs to smash, is tangy from a lemon and buttermilk dressing. It disappears so quickly, we decide to order an encore. I know chef-partner Kyle Knall worked with Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern, but I didn’t expect such bold, sometimes provocative combinations, perhaps designed to be paired with whiskey. As a red wine drinker, that notion would have seemed a sacrilege till now.

Chef Kyle Knall’s signature is char and fat, here it’s caper aioli with sweetbreads.

       I like my sweetbreads big enough to enjoy their anatomy. These are somewhat anonymous, small and fried crisp, but good enough, tossed with charred fennel and fingerling potato chunks in a bowl smeared with caper aioli.

Charred onion marmalade is meant to pile atop marrow scooped onto grilled toast.

       I feel pressed to claim my lot of marrow from two giant shin bones my friends are already attacking with small spoons. I nibble at the pale shiny gel piled on more singed toast after plopping charred onion marmalade and gremolata on top. I think of all those years I avoided marrow as dreaded fat. Denial is more fun than abstinence.

Cut-out windows to the front room make our little Siberia less claustrophobic.

       The man on my right, Henry, is unhappy with his Sazerac. He studies the drink list for a replacement. “You should probably stop looking and just get our classic Old Fashioned,” our waitress suggests. It comes, deeply mahogany with a Bourbon-soaked cherry, Bourbon bitters and a big couturier ice cube in a squat glass. (“We’re all about Bourbon,” says co-owner Danler.)

Maysville’s classic old fashioned will show even a neophyte what great bourbon is about.

       Henry makes a happy sound. He offers me a sip. Oh my God. I don’t think I’ve ever had an OMG drink before. This one is seriously thick and smoky. A man’s drink. And maybe a drink for women who love men. Certainly for women who love men’s drinks. Across the table, my friend Barry orders one too. I try to limit myself to one drink a night. So I’m sipping his.

Here’s a meat dish from my first visit when the just opened place wasn’t ready to judge.

       The four of us had debated ordering slow-roasted Arctic char with root vegetables, mussels and crisp potato skins, or braised lamb with potato dumplings, from entrées priced at $24 to $33. But by the time our duck breast arrives, rose pink, with long white sweet potatoes, scattered leaves of roasted kale and shaved foie gras – a modest taste for each of us -- we can’t imagine another dish.

Practically a deconstructed S’mores: chocolate, toasted meringue, graham cracker.

       That doesn’t mean we will ignore Renee Faris’s desserts. There are only three. I suggest my guests choose two. Chocolate ice cream with toasted meringue and graham cracker cake is a must.“Deconstructed S’mores,” Henry observes. And Barry votes for butterscotch bread pudding with candied pecan ice cream.

The twang and tang of apple granita is just the cure for smoke and bourbon overload.

       But the kitchen, already knowing us better than we know ourselves, adds a platter of tangy apple granita with sheep’s milk yogurt and poached pear. The perfect palate refresher. I don’t even mind the slivers of fresh tarragon stuck in the ice. Tarragon is less feisty in winter than in its summer prime. Small caramels crusted with salt come with the check, their mad stickiness prolonging our connection with Maysville until we get home to a toothbrush.

Pastry chef Faris has a butterscotch version with pecan ice cream for bread pudding fans.

       I want to come back here, for that braised lamb of course. As we wait for our coats, I watch a couple eating it, and imagine I am hungry all over again. But I’m also impressed by the house’s style of hospitality. It’s reassuring not to be asked half a dozen times if we like what we’re eating or if we’re still working on dessert. I like the way tasting plates arrive before you ask. And silver is swept away. It seems that our waitress, winningly named Harley, comes from a steak house family upstate. That explains her appealing grasp of service. Here at last, professionals are in the house.

17 West 26th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue 646 490 8240. Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm. Bar menu served till midnight Sunday through Thursday, till 1 am Friday and Saturday.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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