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It’s all right there in the entryway—everything you really need to know about Trenchermen, Michael and Patrick Sheerin’s wildly unconventional new spot. Pore over the menu all you want, trying to imagine what chai tofu ice cream tastes like and how one makes kimchi mortadella, but it will bring you no closer to understanding the spirit of the place. And don’t look to your server, who will likely describe the menu with an opaqueness usually reserved for Hegel scholars. I’m still trying to process what exactly “casual fine dining” means and how much food one should expect when ordering a “small-plate-size entrée.”
The restaurant’s foyer, however, tells the story. There are terrariums, a nod to the brothers’ (Michael from Blackbird, Patrick from the Signature Room at the 95th) reliance on small local farms. Cubbyholes filled with whimsical curios, such as an iron lunchbox, and drawers with wacky labels, from bacon and Spam to tadpoles and Dracula’s blood, signal a witty approach to haute cuisine.
If this sounds like something you’d find in one of Harry Potter’s classrooms at Hogwarts, you’ve hit on the charm of the place. Trenchermen embraces the idea of culinary exploration with skill and gusto. But it’s a dangerous gambit. I wonder how many people will look at the menu (Anyone for chilled zucchini soup with sardines, coconut horseradish cream, soy cucumbers, and kasha?) and take off running. Those who do will miss out on quite an experience. With its exposed pipes and tangled ropes, the space might offer too many oddities per square inch, but there’s genuine alchemy to be found on the Sheerins’ menu.
Basic dishes, often reserved for high-school cafeteria food, for example, are given the royal treatment. Pickle Tots, a fusion of Tater Tots and fried pickles, are paired with slices of chicken bresaola (an air-dried spiced deli meat) and finished with a cool red onion yogurt sauce so tangy you might give up good old ranch dressing forever. And the beef brisket entrée, with homemade cornichons and mustard garganelli, is a brilliant ode to beef stroganoff.
From there, everything becomes more complicated. Think shreds of lime-marinated carrots, a fresh garbanzo bean hummus (guys, please, please bottle this for football Sundays), and a crunchy salad of browned cauliflower and Marcona almonds. I was particularly smitten with a pork belly covered with coconut, plums, and sugar snap peas, all laced with a sauce inspired by a stick of bubblegum, redolent of vanilla, bananas, and almonds. It was rich and tropical, yet not too sweet. Ingenious.
What I don’t understand is why the Sheerins add acridly bitter notes to so many dishes. Asparagus seeds killed a complex take on scallops with avgolemono sauce (made with oysters and lemon juice) and an egg yolk prepared like bottarga (salted, pressed, dried, and grated). Bits of chicory were superfluous in a smoked paddlefish dish that never came together. And an excessively smoky chocolate sauce overwhelmed the coffee cake. I can excuse the latter, as Trenchermen’s hit-and-miss desserts lean toward the savory. But tossing in shock waves of bitter flavors to jolt diners out of their comfort zones seems a bit too intellectualized.
Trenchermen is at its best when it’s most playful, using ingredients both familiar and exotic to craft daring and electrifying creations. There’s wizardry in this lab—er, kitchen—if you have the courage to partake in the experiment.
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Photograph: Anna Knott