After fielding nervous questions about trotters and pig’s ears, our server at Libertine seemed to be reading my friend’s mind.
“People look at me and say, ‘I don’t know about this menu,’ ” she said. “My hardest job is getting the food in their mouths. And then they’re converts.”
By the time I was signing the check, that’s exactly what my friend was: a convert. I’ll admit to being semi-sold from the get-go. After all, would super chef Tim McKee — this time, working in his role as culinary director for Parasole Restaurant Holdings — steer us wrong? The answer is no, he would not.
Converting four-year-old Uptown Cafeteria into Libertine is Parasole’s second Calhoun Square remake. The first was the ill-fated conversion of Figlio into Il Gatto, a belly flop that might signal caution for future endeavors.
Not here. McKee’s dynamic solution — think of him as Parasole’s Not-So-Secret Weapon — defies a pat characterization, although a lazy label would be “affordable steakhouse.”
But Manny’s (another Parasole property) on a budget, it’s not. At laid-back Libertine, the rules are much looser, the net is cast much wider. While grilled beef is certainly a menu cornerstone, it’s not the whole shebang.
Nor are the five beef steaks recognizable to the Manny’s crowd (certainly not in terms of price; nothing tops $21). The initial temptation is to pin an Island of Misfit Toys label on the selection. Wrong. Instead of oddballs, think of them as heirlooms, their once-beloved status overshadowed by the ubiquity of rib-eyes, New York strips and other populist cuts that have long been favored by the majority of American diners.
The star of the show is an Argentinian-style short rib, and it’s not the traditional pot-roast-like version we expect when we see the words “short rib.” Instead, what arrives is a plus-size version of those tiny, thin-cut bone-in ribs that are the backbone of boilerplate Chinese-American restaurants.
With one major exception: The Libertine version actually tastes like something, the meat’s primal flavor underscored by a bang of salt and grilled char. True, for those accustomed to the plush luxuriousness of a filet mignon, the texture can be a bit of a battle, but in a chew vs. flavor smackdown, the latter will always triumph, at least for me.
The point steak — it’s the tapered portion of the rump cut — is similarly flavor-packed, a huge payoff for its grainy mouthfeel. Kudos also for the coarse but savory feather steak, thinly hewed off the shoulder blade and bisected by a line of connective tissue that melts under the grill’s high heat.
The pork dishes are even better. I’d forgotten what a treat a ham steak can be, particularly this version, with its Hawaiian-style flourishes. Pickled peaches are the just-right foil to slow-cooked pig’s feet, and those crispy pig’s ears sing with lime and sweet-hot chile touches. The rack of meaty, Korean-style ribs is as hefty as it is finger-licking addictive.
Still, the headliner is a spectacular thick-cut chop, which heralds its arrival through the nostrils, insinuating itself into your good graces long before you take a knife and fork to its smoky goodness. The exterior is brought to an intensely caramelized finish, and the ribbon of bacon surrounding this he-man cut only inserts more smoke — and a bit of much-needed fat — into the equation. At $20, it’s also a serious bargain.
Lamb lovers will have a field day, from the deliriously fatty ribs and the zesty house-made sausages to the pinnacle of lamb-y awesomeness, the sizzling lamb equivalent of a double porterhouse. As for chicken, the spatchcocked preparation — the goofy name derives from a once-familiar process of removing the bird’s major bones before a butterfly cut — is astonishingly appealing, each juicy bite redolent of garlic, oregano and lemon.
Burgers are also first rate, particularly bratwurst ground with Cheddar — and just enough jalapeño to give it backbone — then formed into a patty and fried. The kitchen — masterfully managed by Masu veteran Steve Hesse — also clearly has a way with oysters. Get them raw, either straight-up (well-tended) or in cool, well-composed shots (superb) but also fried (fantastic) and charbroiled (divine), beach shack-style.
Then again …
Sure, there are disappointments. The so-so fried chicken (and the wings, for that matter) fail to impress. Ditto the perennially overcooked scampi, shrimp and prawns. Just when the kitchen should be doubling-down on less-than-mainstream options, along comes a handful of seafood and meatless entrees that have a slight bets-hedging quality.
Still, under McKee’s adroit touch, dishes that might normally bore a diner senseless instead vibrate with a treat-for-the-senses intensity. That timeless yet tired tomato-burrata combination is born anew, brightened by herbs and tangy roasted peppers, with flaky sea salt twinkling against the tomatoes’ deeply lustrous color.
Yes, there’s a beet salad, revitalized by cool mint and the play between crunchy pistachio and creamy whipped feta. Bone marrow, its dish-of-the-moment status veering dangerously close to overexposure, is wonderfully creamy and herbaceous. Even the notion of the potato salad is beautifully revisited, with subtle plays on texture and the insert of delicately smoked trout.
Parasole pastry chef Adrienne Odom’s meant-to-be-shared work is clever and well-executed, running the gamut from serious chocolate (a study-in-geometry tart dressed with a dazzling caramel) to funky novelty (a Nutella-filled take on the Twinkie) to classic (a lovely baked Alaska, its caloric load lighted by lemon and raspberry accents).
Good morning, let’s eat
Two thumbs up on the just-introduced weekend brunch. There are hangover-cure holdovers from the dinner menu — that over-the-top pork chop, that crazy bratwurst burger, the full oyster menu, the voluptuous bone marrow — and the bar pulls together some inspired bloody Marys and Mimosas.
The more traditional brunch fare is fantastic: Ultra-creamy scrambled eggs with succulent blue crab, tender jalapeño-fueled biscuits smothered in a robust chorizo gravy, a gorgeous pancake-popover hybrid dressed with juicy berries and tons of lemon zest, and house-baked breads: sturdy English muffins with fruity house-made preserves, warm-from-the-oven banana bread and cinnamon-packed pecan rolls with a salted caramel glaze.
The understated setting is a 180 from its kitschy predecessor. Heather Rose-Dunning of the Architectural Alliance + 20 Below Studio in Minneapolis has squeezed the square footage — a portion of the too-large room can now be closed off, via handsome oiled steel doors — and turned the visual noise level way, way down.
Gone is the nostalgic plunge into the Howard Johnson’s color palette, replaced by a sleekly modern if slightly bland sea of muted grays and blond woods.
My favorite seat? Somewhere along the row of picnic-like walnut tables, their design ideal for conversation, not to mention sharing — if not fighting over — McKee’s and Hesse’s output. McKee said he’s working on a Parasole project for 2015. This diner can’t wait.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib