It may not generally be wise to judge a restaurant by its logo, but it works for the Mildred. There it hangs, above the quiet 8th Street sidewalk where its predecessor, James, ultimately folded under the weight of high prices and conceptual overreach—that most humble icon of comfort-first cooking, a soot-black Dutch oven.
It has about 200 cousins in Michael Santoro’s kitchen: Staub cast iron skillets and soup-bearing teakettles and enameled cocottes, some for serving, others for cooking, and all of them to remind the former Talula’s Garden head chef of his simpler new mission: Think inside the pot.
Fans of Santoro’s delicately embroidered cooking at Talula’s—and I was one of them—may glimpse a stewy skillet of chicken and biscuits here, or unadorned mounds of oxtail served over pearled barley risotto, and fear an apparent U-turn. But even if no one’s tweezing microgreens onto sheets of asparagus gelée at the Mildred, there’s more to Santoro’s homey cooking here than meets the eye.
Take, for example, the pickled dates hiding among rustic sunchoke knobs, sweet-potato tortellini and still-crunchy fronds of flowering kale I had one evening by the barroom log fire, the tortellini’s filling balanced by bursts of sugared acidity. Or the brace of quails served over beluga lentils and diced beets. The pair looked so simple until a knife-
stroke revealed them to be stuffed with ground veal and pork, dried cherries and sage, all wrapped in a delicate lace of caul fat. Delicious.
In other words, there’s a lot of smart labor behind these plainspoken menu descriptions and unaffected presentations. “Broiled parmesan macaroni” sounds like a hoity-toity way to say mac-and-cheese, but turns out to be a single ziti tube coiled around a braised beef rib, the cast iron blistering the pasta’s underside. Santoro’s bouillabaisse smells less like Pernod than it does a Marseille fish house where you might sip some—the prawns, scallops and monkfish bathed in juice wrung out of grey mullet, whiting and porgy. Pig trotters turn up in an appetizer just cute enough to make you chuckle, the caramelized pork lumps cupped in cylinders of confit potato that look like marrow bones.
The punch of salt overwhelmed a monkfish-and-chorizo stew, and there were two-faced desserts (like a crispy-edged, moist walnut cake dragged down by underripe off-season figs), but those were small hiccups in Santoro’s otherwise careful, fairly-priced repertoire.
Service, though, was a baffling cough. Cast-iron cooking is slow enough without your waiter neglecting empty wineglasses for the duration of the main course. And yet the struggle for timely delivery of drinks (or dessert menus, for that matter) was a recurring irritation on my visits.
I wish it hadn’t been, because that discordant note clashed longer than it should have with the harmony Santoro is coaxing from all his enamel and iron.