Sometime after our server at 492 delivered a bowlful of gorgeously cooked Carolina Gold rice, stained with curry and threaded with bits of smoked fish, but before he returned with our pre-sliced porterhouse, he wordlessly dropped off a shallow dish with a condiment that was brown as shoe leather and appeared thick enough to coat a spoon.
In a two-level dining room with seats for 150 people, getting steak sauce to the table when it’s convenient makes sense, so we dismissed the accessory as a coming attraction and went right on enjoying the finically cooked egg that graced our kedgeree. Fortunately, we still had a few grains remaining when we had a chance to ask the server about the sauce, since what we mistook for house-made A1 was in fact meant to dress the rice.
Backed by the vinegary sauce, the kedgeree went from pleasant to powerful. Smart ideas, impeccable technique and deliciousness don’t always line up in the same dish: A chef who can consistently nail two out of three is a chef who shouldn’t have to worry about keeping his LinkedIn profile current. But in a restaurant setting, even a perfect dish is just a falling tree in an empty forest if there isn’t a server on hand to explain the chef’s intentions. All too often at 492, guests are left out of the loop.
When 492 last fall dismissed its opening chef, Nate Whiting, who had been positioned as talisman of the 2015 successor to Tristan, it was roundly understood that the scale of his cooking didn’t match up with the dimensions of the willfully overblown upper King Street room. Surrounded by multiple styles of chandeliers, rows of leather wingback chairs and artwork incorporating a quarter-million buttons, Whiting turned out meticulous dishes that were about as brash and flashy as the average finger puppet.
By contrast, Josh Keeler had been producing flavors that his shoebox of a restaurant on Coming Street couldn’t contain. Before he and Heather Keeler shut down Two Boroughs Larder, citing staff shortages and other small-business heartaches, its mornay-saturated burgers and relentlessly fatty ramen had acquired armies of devotees.
Both dishes have found a new home at 492, which six months into Keeler’s tenure looks exactly as it did when Whiting was in charge, except you get the sense a fourth wall has gone up around the massive open kitchen. It’s not just servers who aren’t communicating with guests. Back-of-house isn’t talking to front, unless the server on my second visit was really late for lineup on the day she sold me a chicken dish off the regular menu.
Definitely go with the chicken, she advised when asked. In her estimation, the two contrasting preparations featured easily beat out a duck with black beans and peanuts that we also were considering. What we received instead was a set of cut-up roast chicken parts, enrobed in just enough added fat to give the bird a greasy mouthfeel. But the salty, garlicky, golden flavor that emerges so reliably from home ovens was strangely missing. The chicken seemed a tad wrung out.
That wasn’t the problem with the bowl of murky broth which accompanied it. The menu calls it consomme, and our server didn’t mention it, but I’d classify the whole mess as ramen, both for the heavy helping of filler noodles and what tasted like an overabundance of salty tare. “I guess they changed it,” the server said when we inquired about the discrepancy between her pitch and the plates.
Entrees generally aren’t a strong suit at 492. Triggerfish, listed as bourride, isn’t so much a stew as an overcooked fillet proximate to cream sauce, decorated with dill. (The menu tends to be as misleading as the staff members: A Sicilian Gaglioppo listed as a full-bodied red was punchy with natural carbonation.)
There was nothing objectionable about the dry-aged porterhouse, although that seems like a rather low bar for anything costing $120 to clear, and since servers don’t ask how you’d like the steak cooked, diners who prefer a cooking temperature other than medium rare might have a different opinion.
The price of the porterhouse includes a metal crock of potatoes aligot, which a Frenchman would identify as exactly that: More cheese than riced potatoes, the whip of carbs and dairy isn’t too far removed from melted-down grilled cheese. That’s radicalized comfort food.
Yet there aren’t many other dishes at 492 designed expressly for pleasure seekers. That doesn’t mean the restaurant serves food that’s serious or healthful — the saggy, smoke-tinged beef tartare is joined by cheese puffs brushed with powder that’s supposed to taste like the dust at the bottom of a Cool Ranch Doritos bag. But a striking number of dishes taste as though they were more fun to create than consume. That’s certainly the case with the parched foie gras, spiced to recall pastrami, and a scramble of eggs that needs more than a scattering of trout roe and grilled sunchoke to make teeth feel useful.
Still, there is plenty that delivers on the promise of the kedgeree, starting with the chubby cluster of yeasty pain au lait, served with more butter to press into the pliant buns. Minimalist agnolotti, bathed in subtly sour foam and topped with the thinnest of fried onion rings, are carefully constructed. The same goes for a breathtakingly pretty black bass crudo, which locates the latent daintiness in horseradish.
For dessert, pastry chef Amanee Neirouz’s creations include a wettish walnut-pear upside-down cake that’s syrupy sweet, and a ludicrously large chocolate-hazelnut dacquoise. It defeated my party of two, and appeared to pose a challenge to five fully grown eaters seated nearby. If only our server had pointed out that the $15 price tag was a clue to the cake’s bulk, rather than an indicator of the current cost of espresso buttercream.
From the day that 492 opened, its biggest draw has been its bar, helmed by cocktail prodigy Megan Deschaine, who has a terrific knack for hospitality. Even when the dining room was almost empty, her bar buzzed with talkative cheer. A few weeks ago, Deschaine ended her time at 492. But it would be a fine thing for everyone involved with the restaurant if she left her chit-chat instincts as a parting gift.