Eat & Drink

Comfort Zone

At Charcoal, chef Patrik Landberg dishes up refreshingly straightforward bistro cuisine.

December 2012

Dishes on Charcoal’s appetizer menu are equally satisfying. My favorite is the warm and comforting braised oxtail ragoût. In this dish, the tender meat of the oxtail melts into a thick, rich red sauce intertwined with wide ribbons of fresh pappardelle. This dish is tight-knit, possessive of its secrets, and united around one common goal: your pleasure. The gravlax, a much lighter, cooler appetizer, demonstrates Landberg’s range. Cured in-house, the tender, thinly sliced salmon is gently brushed with aquavit (a Scandinavian liquor) and drizzled with a sweet and sour mustard sauce. Whereas the oxtail is filling and layered, the salmon is light and simple, and both dishes showcase Landberg’s quiet confidence.

The assurance Landberg brings to the small plates menu extends to his entrées. To get a sense of what Bincho-style charcoal grilling can do to a piece of meat, order the pork chop with fingerling potatoes and sweet roasted apples. The grilled pork, drizzled with a stock, cider, and white wine reduction, is meaty, juicy, flavorful—in other words, the exact opposite of the rubbery pork impersonators most of us have grown used to. The New York strip steak, served sliced atop a creamy celery root purée and accessorized with an elegant red wine demi-glace, is also a grilling masterwork.

While the halibut, grilled over charcoal in a cast-iron pan, was also cooked well, the tender fish was overcome by the too-rich creamed corn and lobster vinaigrette. I know, I know…halibut on its own is almost always boring. But pulling back on the béchamel and chipotle in the corn, or the rich lobster and sherry vinegar in the vinaigrette, would have created a more balanced dish.

Also on the list of lesser entrées: the pan-roasted half chicken and grilled salmon, both of which suffered from a lack of oversight in the kitchen. The chicken was overcooked and dry (perhaps because it was pan-roasted and not grilled), whereas the salmon had been out of water too long.

The servers at Charcoal do their best to make up for mistakes, and their best is very good indeed. The waitstaff—all of them attractive, attentive, and knowledgeable—remind me of young Broadway hopefuls lining up for audition. They are eager in a way that isn’t put on and genuine in their desire to please. As casting director I’d hire them all.

I would also invite the help of a set designer. While there’s a lot working inside Charcoal—the expansive open-view kitchen, the wine-colored booths lining one wall, the welcoming long bar—the main dining area, which is filled with small, square tables and metal-frame chairs, feels more like an executive cafeteria than a modern American bistro.

Come to think of it, maybe the executive analogy is an apt one. The crowd at Charcoal is slightly older than you’ll find downtown, more interested in conversation than getting smashed on the latest craft cocktails. Together, the menu, the clientele, and Landberg’s refreshing lack of ego work together to create a grown-up restaurant that’s easy to embrace.