To Staplehouse, with gratitude

It’s hard not to root for a restaurant closely affiliated with the Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides economic relief to restaurant employees during times of trouble.

It’s also hard not to let a story of cancer — which took the life of the man originally behind the restaurant — pull at your heartstrings. Death, economic hardship. They are never easy.

The survivors pick up the pieces and try to move on — survivors like Jennifer Hidinger, widow of chef Ryan Hidinger. I never knew Ryan Hidinger, but I’ve seen Jennifer in action, gracefully presenting me with yeasty house-made potato sourdough rolls.

The night I got those rolls, they were delivered because I requested them. My dining partners and I had eaten our way through about four protein-laden dishes from the a la carte menu, and we needed carbs. I’d tasted those divine, oily, dense-ish, you-can-taste-the-fermented-potato rolls on an earlier visit when I forked my way through the five-course tasting menu. The rolls are served midway through that menu, curiously as a course of their own, with whipped olive oil studded with thyme. In those rolls, I tasted love, passion and dedication. I wanted them again.

I wanted them again in the same way that I wanted more smoked meats from the restaurant’s shed-like kitchen out back — dishes like smoked lamb gently swathed with a sweet glaze and served with perfectly cut circles of colorful root vegetables resting in an herbaceous pool of celery oil and celery root jus. Or smoked pork belly with cauliflower custard.

Yes, those are smart and intricate, when talking prep method for each component, but you don’t have to think twice to enjoy them. Bite into a chicken liver tart with a burnt honey gelee and just savor. As one dining companion noted, every dish held fabulous texture, every bite tasted new and exciting.

At Staplehouse, chef Ryan Smith and his team are putting out the kind of food I imagine when I hear the term New American cuisine. It means using local, seasonal ingredients that have a true sense of place to execute composed dishes in unexpected, thoroughly modern ways.

The menu changes every couple of weeks. You might not be able to experience the dishes I did, but, when you go, put meat foremost on your mind. From roasting to braising to making charcuterie like pork sausage or the trendy spreadable Italian salami nduja, the kitchen excels at meat preparations.

One exception was a rabbit fritter, a flavor-filled ball that, when bitten into, collapsed instead of holding its shape, due to an overly moist interior.

Fish and seafood were less impressive. A $26 dish of flounder floundered because of its saltiness, despite the hipster sunflower porridge. Too much salt and a beef broth with thick pools of fat floating at the top likewise didn’t do justice to a small soup bowl swimming with fresh shrimp along with bits of micro chervil and sorrel.

Creatures of the sea aside, most everything was outstanding, from start to finish. Both the a la carte and tasting menus offered stellar starters.

From the former, barbecue puffs (dehydrated beef tendon, root veggies and Funyun-like onions all treated like cracklins, flavored with barbecue seasoning and served with creme fraiche) were playful and downright addictive. From the tasting menu, a tiny Benne cracker filled with creme fraiche and an airy, crispy pork-rindy cracker made from pureed day-old bread and topped with whipped bologna and pickled mustard seeds were two of four distinctive bites that comprised a highly creative amuse-bouche.

Also memorable was a dessert of persimmon macerated in red wine and strawberry vin, brunoised with precision and plated with toasted hazelnut crumbs, a quenelle of hazelnut ice cream and hazelnut mousse with a bottom layer of a chocolate crisp reminiscent of a Nestle Crunch candy bar. Flavor, texture and color were all present and accounted for.

Missing, however, was a glass of sherry, the wine pairing for this course. Once notified, a server rectified the misstep, but by then there wasn’t much left of the dessert to enjoy the pairing.

Beverage service at Staplehouse is delightfully on par with the food. Classic cocktails like a planter’s punch and a Last Word were exceptional. Original cocktails also shone, as in the Oaxaca Flame, where smoky mescal is brightened and balanced by citrus. Or in Jazz Hands, a mixed drink that doesn’t rely on a single base spirit; rather, white vermouth, Herbsaint and Benedictine carry the tune.

If you opt for the $85 tasting menu and go all in with the wine pairings for an additional $40, it is money well spent. A glass of Peter Jakob Kuhn riesling helped cut through that salty, fatty beef broth. A glass of earthy 2008 La Rioja Alta Vina Alberdi was a fine accompaniment to that dish of smoked lamb with autumnal vegetables.

One element where things can get confusing is in making reservations. During my visits, that could only be done for the tasting menu via an online reservation system that required you to pay in advance, with a 20-percent tip and the tax automatically added to the bill and charged before you ever walked in the door. Staplehouse since has made it also possible to make standard reservations online for the a la carte menu. It now also takes reservations for either menu over the phone.

When you walk into the industrial chic dining room with exposed brick, tall ceilings and white subway tile, you’ll be greeted by smiling servers who know the menu like the back of their hand, from sourcing to cooking preparation. What’s more, the staff exudes sincerity and warmth. There is no air of pretentiousness here.

The words “with gratitude” are printed at the bottom of the menu. I felt the gratitude — for customers, for fresh food, for exciting cooking, for life.

Now, to experience all this, you can’t enter through the front door at the street. You’ll have to walk down a driveway, past recycling bins and a dumpster poorly hidden by wooden fencing, to get to the entrance.

That’s real. That’s life.

Read about the restaurant's ticketing system here.

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