I stopped short right outside the entrance to Satchel's on 6th. Past the threshold, I could see people sitting and sipping wine at a U-shaped bar in the center of the simple, beautiful space, illuminated by the sexy glow of candlelight reflecting off dark walls. But on the patio, where owner Andrew Casalini was chatting up a large group, I'd spotted an old friend.
The table was familiar. Made of old, shiny wood that might have come from a reclaimed door, it could easily accommodate ten people. In fact, I'd sat at it when it had. The table had been the centerpiece of Satchel's Market, a community gathering place where Casalini had hosted weekly prix fixe meals — and often sat down with both friends and strangers for a drink and a snack on slower nights.
He and his wife, Jen Dactano, had opened Satchel's Market in 2005, first providing the Park Hill neighborhood with coffee, cheese and sandwiches, then converting their spot to a full-service restaurant after they landed a liquor license in early 2009. At the end of that year, the couple had brought on a new chef with an impressive resumé and began raising the bar on their New American menu. Along the way, though, they'd picked up a cast of characters who worked there not because they wanted to be in the restaurant industry, but because they loved the place. Thanks to this odd crew, who occasionally seemed more interested in discussing literature than a diner's dinner, Satchel's Market sometimes felt like it was just playing restaurant.
Satchel's on 6th
1710 East Sixth Avenue
Hours: 5 p.m.-close Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Satchel's on 6th
Duck-fat fries $6
Mixed greens $8
Pork tenderloin $19
Scallops (small) $15
Macho Perez $16
French toast $14
Chicken and waffles $13
But then Casalini decided to get serious. Last fall, he called it quits in Park Hill and instead focused on a part of town where he thought the neighbors might be more interested in an upscale concept, initially one focusing on small plates, desserts and a wine list. He and his wife picked up a prime piece of real estate on East Sixth Avenue, then picked up an impressive partner: Larimer Associates, who have their hand in numerous restaurants around town, including Ernie's Bar & Pizza, Billy's Inn and Madison Street. With that addition came a change in vision: By the time Satchel's on 6th opened this past April, it had been transformed into a neighborhood joint serving an upscale New American menu that changes with the seasons. And while that's almost exactly how Satchel's Market had billed itself at the end, the neighborhood has changed.
So has Casalini's approach to the business.
That was evident the moment I walked past the familiar table and through the door. Rather than some quirky greeter, the host was a pro, sharing wine knowledge as she led us past the intimate tables that line the sides of the room to our requested seats at the bar, taking our prosecco order as soon as we sat down, then leaving us to study the menu. And it took some study: When Jared Brant, the opening chef for Satchel's on 6th, left for Wild Catch, Casalini brought on Kurt Boucher, a former Iron Chef contestant and private chef for such celebrities as William H. Macy and P. Diddy. Boucher has preserved some of the whimsy of the initial menu — flavoring risotto with sriracha and plating beef cheeks with halibut cheeks — but he's also simplified some of the dishes.
Photo Menu Tour: Satchel's on 6th
We started our meal with two of the simpler dishes: the duck-fat fries and the mixed green salad. I made quick work of my half of the salad, which topped a smattering of greens with dried cherries, a Gorgonzola-like cheese, thinly sliced tart apple and candied pistachios coated with cinnamon, nutmeg and curry. Drizzled with a vinaigrette that carried a hint of maple, the mix tasted like fall. The fries, on the other hand, didn't taste like much. I'd asked for them to be sprinkled with porcini and Reggiano (the other option listed was Maldon salt and vinegar), but I couldn't find any evidence of porcini, and there wasn't enough cheese to justify the lack of other seasonings — like salt, which is pretty much the key to an excellent french fry. Still, I would eat duck fat by the spoonful if I found myself alone with a tub of it, and I loved the rich base of these spuds. Next time, though, I'd order them extra-crisp; beyond being bland, these were a little floppy for my tastes.
But it took only a bite of the pork tenderloin to make me forget the fries. The succulent chunk of meat had been encrusted with smoky bacon bits and came with greens that had been sautéed with garlic, sweet applesauce and a perfectly al dente risotto hit with just enough sriracha to make it spicy. Each element was delicious alone; taken together, every flavor popped into an impressive autumnal exhibition.
Based on our server's strong recommendation, we'd also ordered the scallops. The fat, well-sautéed specimens came on a bed of risotto — one that was slightly reminiscent of macaroni and cheese since it had been finished with white cheddar, but was also studded with butternut squash. The scallops had been billed as dusted with pumpkin, and while I couldn't taste that element through the caramelization, an apple-cider reduction had given the dish a pleasing, fruity depth.
As we were paying our check, Casalini came over to say hello, just as he'd greeted every other table in the place that night. He insisted we try a little bit of another sparkling he had by the glass, and handed us a brunch menu as an added lure to return.
Not that we needed much convincing. I'd loved brunch at the original Satchel's and was eager to try the reincarnation. A few days later, some friends and I grabbed a table on the patio, and I immediately ordered one of my favorite Satchel's Market brunch items: the Macho Perez. Boucher has made some changes to this dish, which now features a bed of sweet masa, a couple of slices of pepper-crusted medium-rare steak, a poblano pepper stuffed full of black beans and corn, a drizzle of crème fraîche, a mess of pico de gallo, and a fried egg that comes in its own teeny tiny skillet. Most of the components were fine, but the beans needed some spice, or at least salt. Ditto the fried chicken that came with that increasingly common brunch offering, chicken and waffles. The bird had been cooked perfectly, with crunchy skin encasing still-hot, juicy meat, and it tasted great when doused with maple syrup and downed with a bite of crisp, golden waffle. But a little salt would have created the sweet and savory harmony so ideal in a brunch dish.
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That harmony was readily apparent in the French toast. Thick slices of white bread had been stuffed with peaches and cream cheese, then battered in eggs and fried in a skillet. Drizzled in maple syrup, it was a little like dessert — but the tartness of the cream cheese cut through the sweetness and also any guilt I might have about eating sweets for breakfast.
As the efficient servers cleared away the remains of brunch, I sipped a chocolate chai so rich it could have been made with cream and watched other diners chat with Casalini, back on a Sunday morning after a long Saturday night. But his hard work has paid off: While Satchel's on 6th has smoothed the rough edges of the original, it's also preserved much of the charm.
The neighborhood might have changed, but that community table is still right at home.
Photo Menu Tour: Satchel's on 6th