Any cook can call himself a chef — and often does — these days. Historically, though, the term was reserved for those culinary professionals who'd actually mastered the craft of preparing food, which involved everything from running the kitchen to adding the perfect finishing garnish to a brilliantly constructed plate. And even today, no matter what title a cook might claim, not everyone donning whites, headlining a menu or commanding a pass is a chef.
When a cook is truly a chef, definitions become insignificant: You'll recognize the chef's stature as soon as you taste the food, which will be more than merely good. In fact, if you taste careful construction, flawless technique or painstaking attention to detail, you're probably dealing with a cook. A chef's dishes, by contrast, feature all of those characteristics — and so much more that your palate won't focus on the details. Instead, you'll be tasting the equivalent of someone stealing Dad's keys and taking a joyride in the little red turbocharged sports car, then parking safely back in the garage without anyone ever being the wiser. When a chef has mastered his craft, the food coming out of the kitchen is joyful, exhilarating. And it no longer tastes like hard work; instead, it tastes like delicious play.
That's what Patrik Landberg's seafood dishes at Charcoal are like: a fun, fast ride.
43 West Ninth Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Grilled Idaho trout bincho box $11
Mustard herring $5
Aquavit-brushed gravlax $11
Braised oxtail $11
P.E.I. mussels $10
Grilled Colorado lamb T-bone $22
Blue prawn and sea scallop fricassee $23
I'd seen brief glimmers of Landberg's potential when he was running the kitchen at Satchel's Market. The Swedish-born chef, who'd trained in some formidable kitchens in New York City, was cooking in a tiny hallway of space, and though some dishes needed editing — I have a particularly bad memory of oyster shells filled with guacamole — his skill was apparent, especially at special dinners where he had the chance to get creative. When Satchel's closed in the fall of 2010 with plans to relocate to Sixth Avenue, Landberg didn't wait around. Instead, he joined up with Gary Sumihiro and started creating a menu that pulled from his roots without seeming overtly Scandinavian. And in September, they opened Charcoal.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Charcoal
On my first visit, my brother and I took a table in the middle of the boxy, sleek dining room, where we had a good view of both the exhibition kitchen in the back and the bar to the side, separated from the tables by a glass wine case. After studying my surroundings — I couldn't see any vestiges of the space's previous tenant, Apple Spice Junction — I looked over the dinner menu and decided to tour through some of the meatier items. I liked the flavor of the braised oxtail, which balanced slightly bitter Brussels sprouts against a savory, parmesan-rich broth and fluffy potato gnocchi; it reminded me a little of traditional osso buco. But the meat was gummy and tough instead of velvety, and the same problem plagued the pig on the pork-belly-and-waffle special — which was baffling, because pork belly is a particularly fatty piece of meat. Still, the crispy waffle, rich gravy and sweet pear garnish were a pleasant combination. And while my brother had asked that his lamb T-bone be cooked to the chef's recommendation, I have a hard time believing any chef would recommend grilling lamb to medium-well. The bed of kale and cannellini beans underneath the tough meat was soul-warming, though, especially when mixed with some of the gamey jus.
Those sides showed such promise that I was eager to return, and soon did for lunch, when the offerings include bincho boxes, a midday deal that includes soup or salad, a seasonal vegetable, mashed potatoes or rice, an extra side and one of a handful of entrees for under $15. It took me a minute to wrap my head around the idea of a bincho box — which conjured up visions of Japanese restaurants — at a spot firmly rooted in European cooking. But the explanation soon became clear: Landberg's team is doing a lot of cooking on a charcoal-powered, custom-designed bincho grill (indeed, an Asian innovation) because the chef likes intense heat — and that grill can reach 2,400 degrees. (The grill also explains the name of the restaurant, which seems better suited to a barbecue joint.) So I decided to try the trout bincho box.
One bite into the fish, I decided to quit worrying about odd names. Many kitchens serve trout skin-on but allow an eater to opt out by plating the filet skin-side down, which makes it easy to scrape the body away. Not at Charcoal: The trout was presented silver side up on a wooden plate, and the skin was clearly meant to be part of the dish. Grilled crispy, it not only provided a delightful textural contrast to the supple flakes of pink fish, but had a subtle flavor of char that worked well with the pool of tart, dill-infused remoulade. I ate every morsel, then used the fluffy brown rice to sop up the last of the sauce. Even though the side of bacon-wrapped dates was disappointing — the bacon was slightly scorched — that bincho box was so simple and playful, I couldn't wait to see what else Landberg could do.
I got my chance a few weeks later, when I stopped by with a group for dinner. We grabbed seats at the counter near the exhibition kitchen and ordered just about every seafood dish on the menu, starting with mustard herring. A small dish of the pickled fish soon arrived, the herring's strong flavor mitigated slightly by the mustard seed in the marinade and a few fingerling potatoes. I could have eaten a vat of the herring on the buttered cracker it came with or, better yet, on Charcoal's ridiculously good, fennel-imbued housemade bread. Instead, we moved on to the gravlax: bright orange slices of silky, slick salmon, redolent of smoke and anise-y aquavit, accompanied by a plate of accoutrements that included dill-infused mustard and more crackers. When that was gone — in about three seconds — we slurped up P.E.I. mussels that had been soaking in a white-wine broth made spicy and earthy by Hatch green chiles. Delicious.
Still, the best example of the chef's talents was our last dish: the blue prawn and scallop fricassee. A couple of fat, firm scallops, lightly caramelized along the edges, had been paired with sweet, plump shrimp on a bed of puréed fennel. Anyone tempted to call foam passé should taste the saffron froth on this plate; presenting the spice this way kept it aromatic, airy and central to the dish without overpowering any other part. And the fun garnish — a thin, crisp rectangle of lightly sweet pistachio baklava — provided an enchanting finish. I wanted to stand up and applaud Landberg, who'd quietly manned the ticket rail through our meal, wiping plates and coordinating the back-of-the-house team.
Now someone needs to pay a little more attention to the front of the house. Because while the kitchen is definitely in the hands of a skilled chef, the service team at Charcoal functions a little like a haphazard group of good-natured line cooks in serious need of supervision. One server took my party's order one course at a time even though we were ready to order everything, resulting in awkwardly timed dishes and stacks of papers that we had to juggle while we ate. Another server had to ask the chef so many questions about the menu, we finally stopped inquiring about ingredients and preparations altogether and just made our own best guesses. The wine list is well rounded, well priced and interesting, but the chances of a pairing — much less a bottle — arriving before a course seemed almost nonexistent. At every meal, at least one course featured a missed marking — no steak knife to cut the lamb, no silverware at all when a second round of food came. And when a colleague and I stopped by the bar one night for a bite, we might as well have been invisible.
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Those service snafus won't prevent me from returning, but they're definitely a distraction threatening to put the brakes on Landberg's ride. Those bumps need to be fixed if the entire Charcoal experience is going to meet the high standards set by its chef.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Charcoal