A colossus of a container ship earlier this month motored up the East Coast, carrying so many goods-filled boxes that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had to nudge the Bayonne Bridge upward to accommodate it. In return for the $1.6 billion spent on installing girders and strengthening steel, New York Harbor received 14,000 containers in a single swoop, or about twice as many boxes as cargo ships typically carry.
For all but the most hardened long-distance freight nerds, the statistics are more breathtaking than the boat. The CMA CGM T Roosevelt looks like every other container ship, only more so, with neatly stacked blocks in green, blue, red, white and gray. From the outside, it’s impossible to tell which containers are crammed with rolls of Berber carpet and which hold flat-screen TVs.
At Mainland Container Co. Kitchen & Bar, which this summer took over the sprawling Mount Pleasant venue briefly occupied by Sawyer’s on the Boulevard, the resident container houses a bar. The modular didn’t actually arrive until after visits for this review were completed, but the name still made a certain amount of sense: Nobody who surveyed the Mainland space would guess at the quality of food emerging from its kitchen. It seems like the kind of place where you’d order Fireball shots and beer by the bucket, which is indeed an option.
But should you work up an appetite playing cornhole out back, chef Daven Coad has worked up an array of dishes that reveal a real interest in local ingredients and unfussy ways of celebrating them. Rightly, the menu doesn’t stray too far from barflies’ expectations: More than half of the seven listed “large plates” are sandwiches, for example.
Still, there are sandwiches and there are sandwiches (and then there are the quasi-sandwiches, such as hot dogs and ice cream treats, which drive food taxonomists into tizzies. Those debates are probably best saved for Mainland’s bar, where rambling conversation is the default entertainment when there isn’t a football game to watch or live band to hear.)
Officially, wedges of roast pork belly tucked into hinged steamed buns qualify as a sandwich. Yet there’s no confusing Coad’s bao with the grilled cheese on the kid’s menu. Sophistication here manifests as the thoughtful contrast between soft bread and crisped meat. It shows in the way that pickled carrot slices and daikon matchsticks cut through the sweetness of the honey-assisted char siu sauce and richness of the belly fat.
Look, this is not to say there is a world-class restaurant covertly squatting in a near-beach bar where dressing for dinner means shaking the sand off your flip-flops. The ghost of Buddy Roe’s Shrimp Shack hasn’t been entirely exorcised. But it’s an exciting reminder that food in places that appear peripheral to all of the culinary hoopla downtown is getting better and better, which is surely the mark of a world-class food scene.
Appropriately for the setting, service is casual: One of my servers seemed puzzled when I contemplated ordering a glass of wine other than “house.” (He was right: The budget choice is totally fine.) It’s infectiously enthusiastic, though.
And there’s plenty at Mainland about which servers might enthuse. Taken chronologically, the standouts include a varietally correct Caesar salad, crisscrossed with white anchovies and ivory-hued Parmesan cheese, shaved to the same dimensions as the salty fish. The supporting sweet gem lettuce also is sized with care, which isn’t always a given in the current overburdened kitchen era. At restaurants striving to not buy prechopped lettuce, motley assortments of salad greens that require cutting and salad greens almost too small to spear with a fork are rapidly becoming the norm.
Fish tacos also are terrific. Weirdly enough, the taco selection consists of blackened “fish of the moment,” blackened shrimp, and duck confit. Best to go with the finned member of the group, which on a recent evening was a black grouper. Beautifully seasoned and cooked, the fish was complemented by fresh cabbage slaw and a lively jalapeno aioli that jolted the sandwich (yes, sandwich) into memorable territory. It desperately deserves a better tortilla, but still pairs nicely with a cold beverage and a seat at one of the high-tops on Mainland’s back deck.
If there’s one trouble area for Mainland, it’s presentation. Multiple dishes bore evidence of effort, but still came across as charmingly clumsy, like a birthday gift wrapped by an 8-year-old boy.
Mexican shrimp cocktail, which is closer to gazpacho than what steakhouses serve as a starter, is packed into a jam jar. In the right hands, such a strategy could rate a Pinterest post. But the already-overflowing jar got even sloppier once I stuck a spoon in it, since its mouth was much too small for any kind of elegant extraction. Fortunately, the mechanical challenges didn’t disrupt the garden sweetness of carrots, peppers and tomatoes or dim the appetizer’s rollicking heat.
An otherwise lovely salad of watermelon cubes, goat cheese and prosciutto also suffered from an immodest drizzle of honey, and a gawky bowlful of crudo was burdened with far too much sticky ponzu sauce and scads of sesame seeds. While the latter didn’t throw off the dish’s flavor, it registered as careless, as though the seeds were poured instead of sprinkled.
More importantly, Mainland gets the big things right. I wouldn’t hesitate to again order the grilled tri-tip steak, graced by a chimichurri flush with green herbs. Simultaneously tender and robust, the beef doesn’t really require the pureed sweet potato beneath it.
I wouldn’t skip the lemon icebox pie, though. Most commonly, when eaters crave palate-refreshing citrus after a seafood supper, their minds leap to key lime. But Mainland’s satisfyingly salty pie, crowned with whipped cream, makes a persuasive case for the superiority of lemons. Sometimes gratification doesn’t come in the package you’d expect.