Husk & Vine Kitchen & Cocktails
655 Middle Country Rd., St. James
SERVICE: Poised in the dining room, more freewheeling in the bar
AMBIENCE: On one side, a bar that feels like a stylish roadhouse; on the other, a staid dining room with a stuck-in-time feel
ESSENTIALS: Open Tuesday to Friday from noon to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 3 p.m. to midnight. Parking lot in back; wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted.
Last fall, when chef Nicholas Trovato took over a tapas restaurant in St. James, his game plan sounded a little bit exhausting: A small-plate menu that would change weekly based on what’s in season. Not monthly — Every. Single. Week.
Those dishes, too, would be a panorama from across the world — Korean buri bop, short-rib tostadas. Would it burn this chef out quickly? Maybe, but 14 weeks in, Trovato is still sticking to the script, one he may have had a long time to shape, ever since graduating from New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the ICC) in 1991. Over the ensuing decades, he has spent most of his culinary career in country clubs, as part of ClubCorp.
As opposed to country club dining rooms, where consistency can be a cornerstone, Trovato swaps out most of his dishes every Wednesday. His first spot as chef-owner has two different vibes: On one side, a spirited tavern that feels like a roadhouse, with corrugated metal and rustic wood accents, a commanding bar and high and low tables. Neighboring this is a much more demure dining room of blood-red tablecloths and a hushed vibe. The barroom is more stylish and magnetic, but loud; both halves serve the same menu, including a lengthy beer list (Einstok Toasted Porter from Iceland shares the menu with Miller Lite), thoughtfully chosen wines, and tight cocktails, including a first-rate Bees Knees accented with rosemary.
Each Hump Day, when Trovato and sous chef John Trzcinski roll out their new dance card, it can be a lesson in nonattachment: A dish you were gaga over one week, as I was with a garlicky bowl of clams and rock lobster, may disappear the next.
Not all do, though. Top sellers are bumped forward from one week to the next. Longtime survivors include a delicate riff on fried calamari/fritto misto that, at least one night, was cut with tiny battered shrimp, chewy squash (a mood killer) and cherry peppers, then drizzled with citrusy aioli.
Another keeper is the bacon “candy,” which begins as a Nueske’s belly slab that’s house-cured and sliced into crispy, smoky, salty fingers of fat, then nestled into a wedge salad against crumbles of blue cheese. This meat is memorable, and reappears in a few places — in a nondescript bourbon drink called Swine in a Blanket and alongside the estimable house burger. That seductive Wagyu patty may be overdressed to the point of distraction for some — bacon, smoked Cheddar and tomato jam — and could easily stand tall unadorned.
The burger’s spiritual counterpoint, an ahi-tuna poke, is a ketogenic poster child: Crunchy wisps of bell pepper, onion and cabbage in a light, perhaps too scant, sesame dressing, with creamy-tropical assists from mango, avocado, and tobiko; we really had to dig for the few cubes of ahi tuna, though.
Plates come out as they are finished, and despite their “small” labels can be ambitious and grand in scale, occasionally hitting the stars they shoot for — such as that jumble of creamy New Zealand clams and hunks of langosta meat in a garlicky, tomato-studded broth. Or the nachos — rather than rote, they’re fresh, glistening wheat tortilla chips puffing out in the middle and slathered with a lush guacamole, pico de gallo and shards of braised short-rib meat. Trovato switches up the profile of his chicken wings from week to week; the maple-bourbon-sriracha glaze we had one night was intense and addictive, showered with shattered peanuts and wispy scallions.
On such a dynamic menu, there are inevitably flops. Gingery, sticky-sweet Korean short ribs arrived in a blistering clay pot (you could see the glaze bubbling on the bottom) and, though tender in places, cooked to sinew before our eyes. A skewer of grilled shrimp and sausage that tasted heavy and harsh. Salads were woeful, a burrata salad especially: A blob of intensely fresh (if tiny) cheese marooned in a sea of sandy spinach leaves and gritty beets that were hard as rocks; the entire thing was smothered in balsamic vinaigrette. A wedge salad, conversely, was underdressed to macrobiotic levels.
One night, as we were gunning for dessert, our until-then solicitous server drew our meal to a record-scratch end by reporting that the kitchen had closed, and early. What we missed, in part: A nondescript Napoleon and a tiny, molten chocolate souffle with sloppy drizzle and a surfeit of whipped cream.
Husk & Vine’s exuberant soul makes this a place for intrepid eaters, and drinkers drawn to a lively scene; the less adventurous, and light eaters, should proceed more cautiously.