Cookshop: Another Birthday, Another So-So Dinner

For my birthday, I like to pick a restaurant we wouldn’t normally go to—one that’s gotten good notices and promises a memorable meal. The danger in choosing somewhere new over a reliable favorite, of course, is that you can never be sure of what lies ahead. Last year, we celebrated my birthday at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and it was disappointing. This year, it was Cookshop, and while disappointing is too strong a word to use here, with one small exception the food didn’t leave me desperate to return anytime soon.

I thought I’d played it right this time—as I’ve said before I love Five Points, Cookshop’s older sibling; both New York magazine and Bruni gave Cookshop the thumbs-up, bloggers seemed to be excited by it, and two friends who’d already eaten there raved (normally I wouldn’t put much stock in Bruni, but since he was one of several I took it as a good sign). Of course, in retrospect, I realize I should’ve dug a little deeper. Turns out the bloggers were mostly lukewarm, and aside from a few dissenters, Chowhound was downright negative. (Strangely, there’s not that much about it on egullet.)

My birthday fell at the tail end of the NYC transit strike, when service hadn’t yet been restored. Lucky for us, we’ve got a car, so we decided to drive in—and in what I took to be a very good sign, traffic wasn’t bad and we Kojaked a parking spot right out front (that’s a blurry S, unlocking the door, in the picture up top). We entered the restaurant twenty minutes early for our 8:00 reservation, buoyant, even jubilant, at our good luck, which continued when we were seated right away. And at a sweet corner table, on a cozy red banquette—clearly, the reservationist had paid attention when S said it was his wife’s birthday. The room was humming with energy, all good, with people celebrating the holidays, passing gifts back and forth, clinking glasses. Such promise, such anticipation… Large, loft-like windows put Tenth Avenue on display (not so sure that’s a good thing, since across the street was a parking facility with cars stacked like Matchboxes, but during the day the light must be spectacular). And the service, I must say, was impeccable. Not too intrusive, not too distant, enthusiastic but never pushy.

So: The food.

Honestly, part of the reason it’s taken me a few days to write this up is that it was so, what’s the word, okay. It started out well, with a plate of fried spiced hominy off the “snacks” menu. A pile of barely-greasy jumbo corn niblets, tinged with red from their light, peppery coating, arrived on a sheet of brown paper, with a wedge of lime alongside. These had come highly recommended, and rightly so. A hint of sweet corn, a dose of spice, and the tang of the lime… plus let’s face it, how can anything that’s deep-fried not be at least a little good? S and I devoured them, our forks fighting for the last crispy nugget. Unfortunately, this $5 nosh was the highlight of the meal.

My appetizer was the beet salad with mizuna in tahini dressing. Perhaps fifteen baby beets, red and gold, circled a pile of greens coated in a thick sauce. The beets themselves seemed to be unadorned, and tasted like beets. I’m all for clarity of flavor, and I love beets, but these were just boring. The beets I roast at home excite me more. As for the salad, it had about a quarter-cup more dressing than it needed. Mizuna is an assertive, bitter green, and drenched in all that white goo I could barely taste it. I didn’t finish this dish—it just wasn’t worth the calories, which is an odd thing to think about a salad.

S’s dried beef and persimmon dish, off the snacks menu, was equally bland. It was a beautiful plate, with three small, thin slices of rosy beef arrayed next to glistening, golden mounds of persimmon, but neither element had any discernable flavor. A shrug-worthy dish at best.

Entrees were a little better—S had the lamb, which was served three ways: a small chop, a sausage patty, and some thinly sliced section of the animal (the menu didn’t specify, and we couldn’t tell), with gorgeous roasted cipollini onions and insanely rich mashed yukons. This wasn’t a huge winner, but S did stop mid-sentence to announce “That was a really good bite,” while eating the chop. He then went on to postulate about the lamb it came from—“It must have been a very cute, small, woolly lamb,” since its meat was so tender. The other two preparations, though, were less swoon-worthy.

Instead of ordering fish, as I normally do when we eat out, I was inspired by the chill of the evening and our festive, warm mood to try the beef short ribs, served with grits and fried onions. It was my birthday, and I wanted something hearty and heart-warming. I’ll say this for it: the portion was huge. When the waiter placed it in front of me I immediately thought I’ll never finish this. And I didn’t, but not so much because I couldn’t—it turned out to be approximately 50% fat. What meat there was tasted fine, beefy, but not inspiring. The grits were, like S’s mashed potatoes, shockingly rich—so much so that I didn’t really enjoy them. Overall this was a dish that I suspect other people like just fine, but left me unmoved. As predicted I didn’t finish it, but not because it was too much food; it just didn’t compel me to keep eating.

Even dessert was fine, but nothing more. While reading the menu I so wanted to flip for something, but none of the offerings excited me very much. Finally S and I settled on the chocolate layer cake with peppermint stick ice cream, which arrived with lit candle on top (very sweet—they really did pay attention when S made that reservation). I blew it out—if you’ve been reading here lately you can guess what I wished for—and we dug in. It was chocolatey. It was cakey. It was chocolate cake. The ice cream was pretty damn yummy, studded with chunks of candy cane, but not enough to save the day. Like so much else we’d eaten that night, dessert was indifferent.

All in all, I liked Cookshop. I liked the vibe, I liked the service, I liked the room. I just wish I’d liked the food more. It’s conceivable that, if we were in the neighborhood, we’d go back to sit in the bar and eat some fried spiced hominy over a drink, but I’m not sure I feel the need to return for dinner.

And next time, I think we’ll go somewhere we already know and like for my birthday. I’m tired of starting my next year on a vaguely disappointing note.