There are chefs who get a dish to its ideal before releasing it to the public. And then there are those who nip and tweak and garnish along the way. They doctor according to the flavors of the seasons or to the latest at farmers markets, fishmongers and butchers.
Or maybe, the changes they make are really just about making fun.
At Cast Iron, a low-key little gem in the Old Fourth Ward, I suspect chef Evan Cordes tweaks his dishes for all of the above reasons.
Sometimes the result of his tinkering is a miss, compounded by service that can be gracefully synchronized or awkwardly out of step, depending on the day. But mostly, Cordes’ evolving menu is casually brilliant.
One night at Cast Iron, for example, we ordered snapper that, despite its lovely sear, was a little dry and a little humdrum. Nobody cared because this was one of those protein-as-vehicle dishes. The fish’s nest of crisp bacon shards and plucky curls of pickled onion, earthy field peas and creamy corn was 95 percent of the point.
But wouldn’t you know, just a few nights later, the dish had morphed. The fish was now steelhead trout, subtly smoked. It was moist and exploding with flavor. The field peas became a smattering of bright, tomatoey lentils, and the creamy corn was still there, thank goodness, because I’d been dreaming about those tiny kernels, bursting with cornsilk-scented sugar.
It was a deft transition that made a very good dish into a great one.
Revisiting the homey rye spaghetti with pork shoulder, collards, mustard seed and burnt onions, however, was a bit of a letdown. The only tweak made was the addition of soft-yolked egg, which felt like compensation for a dish that wasn’t working as well as it should.
The first time I’d sampled the dish, the pork had been tender, just a little fatty and imbued with subtle, yet very tasty smoke. There was less broth, which allowed the flavors of the tart-and-tender collards and toothsome rye pasta to sing. The change was a demotion, yes, but committed with such earnestness that I couldn’t get bent out of shape about it.
It’s less easy to forgive uneven service. One night, our server was coolly on task and had plenty of clever thoughts on the food. On another, our food was delivered so slowly by an inattentive and reticent server that we were offered an apologetic round of drinks by a manager. Our server, none-the-wiser, put the drinks on the bill. At least he didn’t charge us for the shoestring fries we ordered but never got.
Cast Iron’s chill vibe does help defuse annoyances like this. The cozy L-shaped space, with navy blue walls, wood-plank booths and the simplest constellation of globe-shaped pendant lights over the bar, feels nesty and festive all at once. This is a restaurant that’s, as the website notes, “Nothing too fancy.”
The cocktails fit right into this philosophy. Most are boozy and minimally garnished with citrus peel or a couple of cucumber slices, but all are finely balanced, especially the apricot brandy-scented Bright Futures and the nicely sharp Cynar-laced rum cocktail called Gap Junction.
You get a similar breeziness in a small plate of perfect cold lamb dressed with sumac yogurt and an obsession-worthy smear of pesto fashioned from carrot tops and very toasty ground peanuts.
And the three-ingredient app of gracefully pickled white asparagus, shaved into tart-sweet ribbons, then tossed with bits of pungently smoked duck breast and a very runny and rich duck egg.
And let’s not forget the pure simplicity of a sumptuously rare, herb-infused hanger steak sided by little more than fluffed, crisp-edged potatoes and tender kale leaves coated with smoked sour cream. There’s a bit of wit in using the sour cream to dress the kale instead of the potatoes. There’s a dash of sweetness from the occasional beet and a textural zing from crunchy spring onion, but mostly, this is a dish that is straightforward in its loveliness. Nothing is taken too seriously here except skillful execution.
By now, you might have noticed a theme at Cast Iron that has nothing to do with the breaded-crunch or crispy char you usually associate with a heavy black skillet. Instead, Cordes’ favorite culinary tool seems to be smoke. You smell it — salty and porky — when you walk into the restaurant. (Two massive Big Green Eggs are prominently displayed just outside the door.)
And you taste so many variations of smoke in the food. It’s a big punch in that asparagus/duck and a lovely whisper in a veg-laden smoked spring chicken served with fava beans, earthily sweet fermented cherries and “delicious leaves.” (They were indeed.)
And finally, the smoke comes with blackened edges in dishes like meaty barbecued mushrooms served with beautifully bitter radicchio and a puddle of aromatic Vidalia cream. Or a thick but very juicy grilled burger with bacon, cheddar and remarkably fluffy cornmeal bread.
It’s probably no coincidence that two very meh dishes had not a whiff of smoke about them. One was a bowl of near-burnt hot-and-sour potato chips sparsely dusted with cotija and cured egg yolk. Another was a bland toss of cold rice noodles and shrimp that got very little zip from shmears of hot mustard and tamarind caramel.
A couple of other disappointments came at dessert: a bitter, brick-sized “turtle” incongruously garnished with both cloying almond ice cream and buttery peanut brittle and a doughy chocolate chip ice cream sandwich. Instead, order the subtle strawberry rhubarb ice cream nested in an intriguingly creamy poof of “whipped cornbread” and crisped up with nutty tuiles.
And never mind those chocolate clunkers. I’m sure they’ll be tweaked away soon enough — maybe just for the fun of it — by this nimble and inventive chef.
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