- Martha Gehan
First off, I completely agree with previous posters who have pointed out how dumb the name is. I would have perhaps asked the owner, who was very much in evidence, but--full disclosure time--one of our party, an events planner and former caterer, had done a couple of parties with him a few years ago. He immediately recognized her and subsequently sent us a comped appetizer and dessert so I felt it would have been rude to cross-examine him about his rationale for the silly name.
The spot was chosen by a friend for her birthday dinner. I had a drink there a couple of weeks ago, but this was my first meal. And it was not at all bad. Bread was excellent. The comped appetizer was a pile of the best fried zucchini I have ever had--thin golden chips, greaseless and just salty enough. (There was no salt on the table, which bugs me--I think it's an affectation--but I have to admit that nothing any of us ordered needed it.) Other good starters were roasted asparagus gratineed with parmesan--fat, fresh spears gilded with just enough olive oil and grated cheese, grilled calamari--simple but very tasty. I was quite disappointed in my salad of sauteed wild mushrooms, with what was billed as butter lettuce but was kind of tough and tasteless. The mushrooms, a generous serving (as it should have been at $14--I split it with someone) were beautiful and fresh but drowned in a much too vinegary balsamic vinaigrette. Made my lips pucker it was so sour, and I'm a vinegar lover.
My main course was terrific--a special of soft shell crabs served with roasted potatoes and sauteed ramps. The crabs, three nice-sized ones to an order, were crisp and juicy and nicely cooked. The brown butter and caper sauce was delicious, perfectly executed. But the ramps--the best I've had! Just the greens, sauteed, very sweet but with that garlicky edge that makes ramps so irrestible. What made this dish such a success was the impeccable freshness of the crabs and ramps. Potatoes were a little dry, and it was not a very pretty plate of food--the crabs were sort of thrown on top of the ramps and potatoes willy-nilly--but it sure was toothsome. I also tasted some nice sauteed scallops--described as 'scampi style', cooked with garlic and finished with parsley--this was good too and beautifully presented, unlike the crabs.
The comped dessert was, believe me, the only one a party of four would need. A very traditional (and large) banana split, served in an old-fashioned ice cream parlor footed glass dish with scalloped edge, but with big very fresh walnuts (I usually don't care for walnuts, but these were goood) and really yummy brandied cherries. I am not crazy about ice cream, but the chocolate sauce sure tasted good on the banana. And the ice cream-addicted birthday girl loved it and hoovered up most of the dish.
Service was weird. We were stranded at the bar long enough by a very late member of our party to observe that the bartender was crackerjack and very pleasant. Our waiter was as cute as hell (all the waiters are cute as hell--one literally--he resembles the babeish Richard Hell of the mid-eighties, who lived on my block then--sorry, know it's girly of me, but the staff is quite attractive). He was solicitous but boy could he be spacy. On the one hand, he correctly remembered all our orders without writing them down, and gave one member of the party who had requested no potatoes extra ramps with her crabs. But we ordered a second bottle of wine right before our mains were delivered and when it hadn't come ten minutes later he approached, after beseeching glances were cast his way, with the news we'd ordered the last bottle. When he returned with the replacement he became so flustered when he realized he hadn't given us new glasses that my friend took pity on him and relieved him of the bottle and corkscrew and opened it herself while he scurried for the glasses.
And when the bill came, and it took forever to come, we'd been charged for the second bottle that hadn't been in stock, for a total of three bottles at $38 each. (The list, like so many I've seen recently, was IMO overpriced.) Without the expensive vino and tax and tip, our tab was a litttle over $100. We were comped two items, but we would have been fine without them because portions are large--wth them we felt stuffed as Strasbourg geese. So all in all, I would say good not great, pretty nice big, airy space with an open kitchen but too dark, well-meaning if scattered service, reasonable if you don't guzzle high-priced wine like we did last night.
I was at Chinghalle about six weeks ago and totally agree about the excellent fried zucchini and the bizarre service. The amount of nervous energy in that place was unbelieveable. I've never experienced anything quite like it. I'm wondering if we had the same waiter - he was a strange mix of spaciness, anxiety, and surprising flashes of competence. He was also terribly eager to please; when we pointed out that we were one wineglass short, he apologized profusely and said that he'd get one right away. In a very friendly manner, my friend said something like, "I should hope so!", and his face just fell for a moment before he realized that she was kidding. He did relax as the meal went on (even shared some anecdotes about memorable customers with us) but there was an odd sort of tension that never quite dissipated.