Football fans, pointing to audience numbers, argue that baseball devotees can no longer lay claim to America’s game. Nuts to them both, I say.
Restaurants are our most popular venues for out-of-the-house entertainment. Not everybody has the cash to sit in the expensive seats, but when they do, they hope to witness a win. Baseball is still No. 1 in metaphors, though.
A recent dinner at Midtown Kitchen left me thinking of a young pitcher pressed into the starting rotation during an unexpected pennant run. Too many errant throws for a championship, but enough strikeouts to kindle hope for next season.
Adrian Bylewski, Midtown Kitchen’s chef, has worked for fine dining hotspots Hutch’s and Tabree. He also is 26, and only three months into the first menu he can call his own. He can hit the plate, but needs more control to take his team all the way.
The former Nektar space is now a bar with high-top tables and doors that slide open in fair weather to admit Elmwood Avenue atmosphere. A woman painted by muralist Chuck Tingley covers a wall, her hair flowing behind the bar’s television array.
Midtown Kitchen expanded into Nektar’s former parking lot, adding tables in a room mostly sheltered from the bar bustle. Noise didn’t interfere with conversation, but the place wasn’t more than two-thirds full while I was there.
The menu offers 13 “snacks” including wings ($12) and fried calamari with pickled jalapenos and greens ($13), plus sandwiches, salads and tacos.
Our meal was a seesaw affair. Marinated eggplant ($7) was overwhelmed with a heavy-handed application of vinegar. Yet delicate mint-cucumber sorbet heightened the briny pleasure of raw oysters on the half-shell ($12 for six).
Chilled corn bisque ($8) topped with popcorn tasted more like buttered popcorn than the fresh vegetable, its natural sweetness leaving me thinking it would be better off frozen into sorbet. It was followed by a comely multicolor array of tender roasted beets ($8) with pizzazz from shishito peppers, pecan vinaigrette and shaved pecorino Romano.
The most thrilling appetizer I had is no longer, alas. Grilled peach and tomato salad with housemade ricotta and pistachio ($10) featured dead-ripe fruit sweetened further with a pass on the grill, a refreshing, winsome dish that made me wish for a longer season.
At first glance, entrées stick to the middle of the road, four steaks, rack of lamb, chicken cutlet and scallops, but the proteins are surrounded by a cast of characters. The lamb ($29) brings mint gnocchi, short ribs have serrano chimichurri and jicama-radish salad, and lobster tail ($27) rides crispy ramen with chiles and mint.
An 8-ounce filet ($37), cooked to a shade past proper medium rare, was flanked with crusty-creamy fingerling potatoes, garlicky sautéed greens and demiglace sweeter than usual from the use of champagne. Seared ahi tuna ($29), served over eggplant, had its delicate flavor overshadowed by the overexuberant application of Chinese five-spice powder.
The lobster on crispy ramen was a wild pitch. Its housemade pasta got chewy when sautéed, instead of crispy. The lobster tail, so often overcooked, wasn’t rubbery but it arrived saltier than the ocean it once called home.
Fried chicken with mashed potatoes and greens ($20) was my favorite dish. Twin boneless breasts, plump and juicy inside a crackling Southern-style coating, arrived perched on smashed potatoes ennobled with roasted garlic. Bacon gravy added a smoky quilt of richness to the entire ensemble. On the side, collard greens, spicy and tangy with chile and vinegar, welcomed the earthiness of black-eyed peas.
Housemade desserts ($7) included a resonant sorbet trio of strawberry, blackberry and lemon, and a triple-decker vanilla-chocolate-caramel mousse that took old-fashioned cafeteria pudding cups to finishing school.
A silky crème brulee with grace notes of lemon, lime and orange zest sported a proper crust that cracked under the spoon. Then a surprise hit – a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich with buttermilk ice cream. It was buttery and crispy-edged but somehow still light, bright with fruit and peanuts, a childhood delight successfully elevated into adult joy.
Service was steady throughout, but I wished silverware was placed on a napkin rather than the bare table.
I can’t tell you every choice will thrill at Midtown Kitchen. I can tell you I want to come back and see if the kid can add to his heater, settle in and paint the corners.
Midtown Kitchen - 7 plates (out of 10)
Lively dishes with hits and misses as rookie chef gets his starting menu.
WHERE: 451 Elmwood Ave. (322-1960)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Brunch is served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers $7-$23; salads and sandwiches, $8-$17; entrees, $20-$39.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.