October 29, 2007 | Insatiable Critic
Delicious Déjà Vu at Irving Hill

 Yes, Irving Mill has that familiar tavern look. Photo: Steven Richter
 Yes, Irving Mill has that familiar tavern look. Photo: Steven Richter

        Irving Mill seems to be unabashedly flaunting the genes of Gramercy Tavern in the autumn farm stand pumpkin display at the door, the vintage touches of its vast tavern-like space, and that familiar genteel and friendly style of service that starts out properly solicitous and sometimes gets so syrupy you start to feel imposed on.

 This red wine is perfect with zesty baby octopus. Photo: Steven Richter
         Waiters in suspenders look vintage, especially the one with a little Revolutionary War style pony tail. Bare wooden tables have been sliced, stabbed and gouged to create an unconvincing veneer of age but I’ll give a point for trying. The owners -- brothers Sergio and Mario Riva and Mario’s wife Suzanne --  cooked up this ambitious venture in what used to be their Candela.

        What’s new and exciting is chef-partner John Schaefer’s delicious food on a trim but tempting market menu: The citric, preserved-lemon sparkle of grilled baby octopus with shaved fennel and sweet pepper caponata. 
His lush and savory stew of New Zealand cockles with chorizo, mustard greens and roasted tomatoes  The reasonably rare Arctic char under a crisp of skin, riding atop an intriguing toss of  lentils, savoy cabbage, speck and cippolini onions roasted in red wine. The bouquet of flavors and varying textures make a balanced complement to the sweetness of the fish. 

        Pleasantly surprised, I don’t find myself thinking, oh yes, Tom Collichio, even though Shaefer did twelve years at Gramercy, rising to Executive chef, reeling in honors from Zagat, Michelin and the Beard foundation. What we’re tasting stands out on its own. Tonight we’re at a friends and family tasting, but the flubs seem minor: the char could be rarer; the pork chop splendidly tricked out with red cabbage and toasted spatzle could be juicier.

        The place is double staffed tonight and some are nervous, over solicitous. A smiling runner, presenting desserts, exhorts us to enjoy, twice, one enjoy for each sweet.  Colleen Grapes, perfect name for a pastry chef, avoids sweet cliché.  Black current tea chocolate mousse with brownie, granola and yogurt sorbet is a first for me. The apple and pumpkin strudels with crème carmel and apple cider buerre blanc are an odd pair: The apple is fine; the pumpkin a bit odd. Still I love her sweet zucchini bread with orange sorbet, marmalade and toffeed walnuts.

116 E. 16th Street bet Union Square East and Irving Place 212 254 1600