At The Whitney House, chef Max Avon puts a twist on idyllic American classics and emerges as a talent to watch.
It's an old gameamong chefs: What would your last supper be? Spoiler alert: It usually isn't foie gras. It's often something simple, like a comforting dish mom used to make. The Whitney House, which opened in Worthington in December, isn't trying to replicate mom's hamburger casserole, exactly. But the restaurant is inspired by it and the nostalgia of gathering for dinner with friends and family.
Ian Brown is the proprietor. It's a quaint term that fits the man and the establishment. Brown is often stationed just inside the restaurant's side door, greeting friends and neighbors, checking in on guests, cajoling youngsters to set aside their iPods and try some broccolini.
Brown, a Worthington native, bought the place after someone at a family dinner casually mentioned the old P.K. O'Ryan's space was for sale, and could you pass the salt? Brown already knew the business. For 20 years, he was a general manager with the Brio/Bravo Restaurant Group, most recently running the Brio at Easton. Here was a chance to run his own place in the neighborhood in which he grew up and loved.
The Browns renovated the space and christened it The Whitney House-a nod to a former residence that holds special meaning for them. Now a hallway connects two previously separate spaces: a vaguely colonial tavern with a bar and simple glass lanterns in the back, and a more upscale dining room with ashy wood floors and brick walls up front. Puritan gray built-in cabinets are stocked with glassware and blue-striped cotton napkins. Black leather banquettes line the wall. Moravian star pendants anchor the room from above.
The new aesthetic fits the New England-y downtown better than an Irish pub ever did. Despite the spare, Andrew Wyeth palate, the place isn't dull. The mood is spirited, and executive chef Max Avon's cooking has a lot to do with it. Avon, also from Worthington, was previously the executive sous chef at Lindey's; before that, he was sous chef at Bon Vie and worked in Chicago under notable chef John Caputo (Bin 36). When he and Brown sat down to create The Whitney House's menu, they were less interested in chasing food trends and more focused on reimagining the simple dishes they like to eat, with an eye on what's seasonal and local.
"FIRE! KUNG PAO!" Avon booms on the dining room side of the pass-through to the kitchen, like a soldier lobbing a grenade. Tonight, we're perched on stools at the chef's counter, which can feel either like punishment for not making a reservation or the VIP treatment, depending on your mood.
As chicken pot pies as tall as top hats fill the window, Avon slides us a saucer (a complimentary gesture to those seated at the chef's counter) of Pickled Vegetables ($3), including vinegary cauliflower, celery, green beans and carrots warmed by red chili flakes. Later, he offered a sample of Kung Pao Shrimp ($13) glazed with a spicy brown hoisin and chili sauce and sprinkled with chopped cashews-an answer to my earlier suggestion that the appetizer seemed out of place on the menu. "Kung Pao is one of my favorites," he explained. "And it's as American as anything."
My favorites at The Whitney House are the Daily Plates, such as the Low-Oven Pork Ribs ($23) available on Tuesdays. While I was catching the last few minutes of "The Voice" the night before, Avon was putting these meaty racks in the oven at 200 degrees. Dry-rubbed with spices, then glazed with a hoisin barbecue sauce, the tender meat easily pulls away from the bone. It's good enough to make you mark your calendar (although at press time, Avon was thinking of moving the ribs to Thursdays, along with making a few other menu updates for spring).
He's not messing with Sundays, though. That's when the kitchen does a terrific FriedChicken ($21).Avon dredges the meat in a batter spiked with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, giving the crispy exterior a warm spice and dark color. A jar of Sriracha honey offers extra kick. If the price seems high, consider that you get two drumsticks, two breasts, a cast-iron pot of smoked mac and cheese and a mess of pickled vegetables.
Because my husband is that rare breed of guy who doesn't love comfort food, he ordered the Hanger Steak ($23). Bands of vibrant green chimichurri add grassy freshness. I prefer a more tender cut of beef, but it did have good flavor.
A mild, almost sweet flavor makes the Pan-Seared Trout ($17), bathed in Tabasco butter sauce, a pleaser. And a golden panko crust earns high marks for the Bone-in Pork Chop ($21), a huge chop pounded flat and wide like scaloppini. My mom used to fry breaded cutlets like this when I was kid. Then, as now, I worked my way around the extra crispy edges first.
Most entrees were right on the mark, but one miss was the vegan Farrotto ($14), a take on risotto made with the ancient grain farro, asparagus and wild mushrooms. It's better at brunch, when a drippy fried egg lends creaminess and fat, which are otherwise missing.
First courses and desserts were also a degree or two off. The House Salad ($7) was too lemony and sparse, with a few pear slivers and a brittle prosciutto chip. A Bibb salad ($7) with soft green leaves coated in creamy buttermilk ranch dressing was better, but evidently peppered with a semi-automatic grinder.
If you like snacking on dry Kashi cereal, you'll enjoy the Crunchy Mix ($3), a bowl of roasted chickpeas, chopped cashews, seeds and hard-as-a-rock hominy (hold on to your veneers) dusted with cayenne and tandoori spices.
I'd rather start with the Daily Crostini ($4). One night we were there, thin crisps were spread with a creamy blue cheese pulsed with dried apricot and cherry, then finished with a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. These drool-inducing bites immediately revved my taste receptors.
Dinner portions are huge, so dessert is hardly needed. Good thing, because the ones we tried fell short. Bread Pudding ($6) with spiked cranberries wasn't as gooey as you'd expect. Boozy Floats ($8) that are finished tableside-Saranac Black Cherry Cream soda is poured over dark chocolate ice cream and bourbon-would do well with a spin in the blender to help the soda make friends with the frozen base. Our perceptive server took the untouched shake off the bill.
Wine is a much better way to get boozy here. Donnie Austin, owner of House Wine down the block, consulted on the list, which is helpfully organized in sections such as "Zesty and Citrusy," "Bolder and Deep" and "Intriguing and Savory." From the latter, we enjoyed a glass of La Cartuja Priorat ($10), a Spanish red rumored to be one of Brown's personal favorites.
Cocktails are unique and often named after mothers of The Whitney House staff. The woman who inspired The Ruth ($7), a pink martini with vodka, pomegranate juice and mint should do a little dance; hers is one of the best.
The staff is well-trained, and Brown certainly creates a vortex of hospitality. But on several occasions, servers seemed to disappear for stretches, and we waited a long time before anyone came to the table at brunch one morning.
Sitting down together for dinner as a family is a dying institution, at least in my house. The kids sit at the island, while we grown-ups stand and open mail, get a jump on the dishes, refill waters, catch snippets of the news and, oh yeah, eat. The Whitney House is doing its part to remind us how nice dinner can be-especially when someone else is doing the cooking.