[Pigging by Wilfrid: February 20, 2012]
Too late. A day after posting this rave review comes the news that Masten Lake is closing. I don't know what this says about what diners want, considering that it offered a substantially better dining experience than many places in the neighborhood which are packed to the gills - and at comparable prices. What a great pity.
I just didn't expect it. I really didn't. What I expected was another storefront gastro-cupboard, packed with braying hipsters, with a line on the street outside, precious service and trendy small plates.
But no. This is a gem, an oasis, a place of peace and comfort with serious food; in fact, with some of the best plain eating I've enjoyed in a while. You should go, and go hungry.
I can't overemphasize the sense of space here. The restaurant is named for a lake in the Catskills (I've seen PR which suggests it evokes a "Catskills bungalow"). You do have a sense, as you walk in, of leaving the horrors of Bedford Avenue behind. The long, wide room, the cool color scheme, the widely spaced tables, the long bar: the effect is immediately soothing. Even the wooden bench seating is surprisingly comfortable.
Chef-owner Angelo Romano is an alumnus of Roberta's. He brings some of that destination's seasonal foraging sensibility, but - happily - omits the sense of barely controlled chaos. Service at Masten Lake is young but earnest; very eager to please. This is a place which wants you to have a good time; doesn't regard you as lucky to be admitted.
The menu opens with a list of meats and cheeses from notable producers - Fra' Mani, Jasper Hill Farm, even D'Artagnan. What follows is divided into cold and hot appetizers, pasta and protein (although protein is a hearty theme throughout). The menu changes constantly, so everything mentioned in this review should be taken as an indication of style rather than content.
For example, the refreshing sunchokes, thinly sliced and crispy, came with slivers of mackerel, fennel fronds and a finger lime dressing the first time I ate here. By my next visit, the garnish had transformed to smoked trout and horseradish cream. The sunchokes come as a kind of carpaccio, we won't please those who are wary of the current "forage-ish" trend towards serving unlikely vegetables raw.
The food here isn't as novel and edgy as that which I found at the very good Isa. But the kitchen does have the same gift of making simple, cold, leaf-based plates seem almost meaty.
Hefty lettuce leaves, blue cheese, dates, thin slices of green pepper. This is a salad you can cram into your mouth indelicately.
Need some heat? Masten Lake received early plaudits for an oxtail marmalade, and has been serving oxtail ragù over pasta. I found a new dish on the menu: a rich bowl of chunky oxtail stew cozying up to what I can best describe as a sort of amaranth grits, made earthy with kalonji seeds (seeds of the Nigella plant, a little like black sesame).
Speaking of pasta, there are always four choices on the menu. Pici with chicken and black truffle has been a temptation, but I ate the maltagliate with trotter ragù.
I don't know any difference between maltagliate and malfatti - both terms seem to mean badly torn noodles. This is a dish to rival Maialino's excellent malfatti with suckling pig.
The trotter sauce is more restrained than you might expect - no big hunks of foot - and it clings winningly to the ripped up pasta. Plenty of good cheese showered over it.
The big plates - the so-called "proteins" - get complicated. The chef likes to send them out as multiple plates, and indeed, although priced in the low twenties (low thirties for steak) they are shareable. The half rabbit, for example. Rabbit two ways, plated and in a deep bowl.
Plated: the foreleg rendered exceptionally tender and coated in breading. The loin, lightly cooked and sliced. Hunks of toasted cornbread and - unusual touch - pieces of apple.
Bowled: a hind leg, nicely braised, in rich cooking juices. The secret to the dish, according to me - nobody suggested it - is to take those juices and dump them on the cornbread. At first bite, dry and not so interesting, the croutons were transformed by being soaked in the juices.
Bring it all together, this was quite some plate. Currently there's an "entire rabbit" on the menu, $70 with all kinds of accompaniments. It is calling to me with a siren song.
Does it get better? Arguably yes, with an equally generous guinea-hen dish which is the best I've eaten in years (and outside of France).
This is trencherman stuff. A beautifully bronzed half guinea-hen on the bone; some sea salt.
Alongside it, a plate of grains - I am going to say farro, but that's open to correction - meatily sauced, garnished with baby leeks, and with a slow poached egg just waiting to be broken over it.
Sheer enjoyment, I have to say, is not an everyday thing when it comes to restaurant eating. (Yes, why do I do it, then?). But a forkful of eggy grains alternated with a chunk of roasted hen flesh; about as good as it gets.
The fowl was just a little rare in the middle, but the skin was as good as it looks, and I ended up gnawing the bones. The only downside to the mighty mains here is that I haven't really looked at dessert. Cheese, in any case, is another temptation.
Cocktails and a few craft beers, of course, and a wine-list which might be described as challenging. The investment is in organic, small-production wines from France and Italy, which means some odd ones - for the most part, very inexpensive, bottles in the forties. I've had some...difficult glasses here. Try to taste. There's a nice Nebbiolo.
This is a restaurant which deserves discerning support. Website here.