Irving Mill, 116 E. 16th St, 212-254-1600 Price range: $40-$55
Irving Mill, in its way, is quite a beautiful restaurant. Dark wood beams, light paint, wrought-iron chandeliers and expert, caramel-hued carpentry recall a carriage house. But sit for a while and the place becomes more troubling. From the grand size of the space clashing with the design philosophy (just how green is a room with 30-foot ceilings?) to the “Washington Irving” signatures self-consciously emblazoned on the large (yet uncomfortable) banquettes, fusion woodwork and the heavy dose of kitsch strewn about — nothing seems quite right. A 12-foot millstone as a bar table is a nice touch. But why is there a wagon wheel on the wall? All this is after you get past the visual focal point of the room: the waitstaff’s station, whose glowing touch-screen is jarring but better than the cutesy copper kettles.
Our waitress was fantastic (and actually told us which dish is liked least!), as were the beer and cocktail menus (and, of course, the wine list). I had a Belgian-style ale from Victory, and a friend had a blood orange Manhattan, a faithful take on the classic using Rittenhouse rye whiskey, blood orange bitters and, thankfully, no juice.
The food was more uneven than this unrepresentative sample of wonderful drinks. Surprised to see so much fish on the menu, I decided to start with Grilled Baby Octopus, peppers and fennel ($15). The whole baby sea beast was the biggest disappointment of the night, with insipid, unseasoned sides failing to detract from octopus that was both undercooked and overcooked — no char flavor yet with the mouthfeel of an inner tube. At the other end of the spectrum, perfect, if familiar, Cauliflower Ravioli ($13) showed the success that devotion to market-fresh ingredients can provide, melding whole and puréed cauliflower, hazelnut and parmesan in homemade, al dente wrappers.
Braised Rabbit ($24) and Braised Lamb Shoulder ($28) were impossibly tender, a true feat with temperamental rabbit prone to stringiness. But the sauces just didn’t hit the right mark. Both were rich and brown-stock-based. The flaky lamb came with mushrooms, cabbage, squash and orecchiete pasta, yet somehow remained one note, unless one carefully constructed a bite of everything. But who wants to eat like a surgeon? The rabbit’s brown sauce tasted like another kitchen altogether, with an abundance of chopped olives obliterating the delicate flavors of the meat, garlic sausage, herbs and caramelized shallots. And the underside of the plate was like a middle school desk, rough from dried-on detritus. That was a turn-off.
Losing our appetite with this heavy but not particularly fulfilling meal, we opted against dessert, though the check did include a heavenly peanut- and-bourbon cookie. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand the restaurant. Is it about market-fresh, classic American luxury? Eco-conscious farmhouse fusion? Everywhere it’s beautiful and delicious; everywhere contrived and confusing.