This Downtown classic wants to be part of the conversation again. A creative new chef in the kitchen certainly has us talking.
The smoked carrot saladmade me believe a turnaround was possible.
Slender orange and purple carrots are blanched and sent to the hulking smoker out back. Twenty minutes later, they emerge virtually unrecognizable: dense, meaty and imbued with the hickory wood-smoked flavor of a campfire. The warm, slightly curled carrots weave through vinaigrette-slicked arugula, creamy ricotta and golden raisins with the confidence of an "it" vegetable. This $10 salad proved to me not just that carrots can be satisfying, but that Flatiron Bar & Diner may be able to recapture the city's attention.
The historic brick building-just 8 feet wide at its narrowest-has pressed itself into the shadows of Downtown in recent years, like the shy kid on the sidelines of a party. As restaurants in the Arena District and nearby North Fourth Street flourish, Flatiron has been content to serve burgers and barbecue to Downtown workers on their lunch break and convention-goers from across the street.
Now, in the wake of staff changes, Flatiron Bar and Diner wants to be a destination for innovative, seasonal food.
When longtime chef Steve Nicholson took over as general manager last summer, he knew he couldn't do both jobs. He also wanted to breathe new life into the stale menu. In February, he hired chef de cuisine Matt Heaggans, the creative force behind Swoop! food truck and Bebe, the pop-up at the Hey Hey in Merion Village. Heaggans is in touch with what modern diners want, wasn't afraid to take risks and, as an outsider, isn't bound by nostalgia. In April, they rolled out the first evolution of a new menu.
Dishes ranged from kitschy (deep-fried spring onions called House Funyuns) to snacks that involve technique but sound unappetizing (popcorn tossed with maple chicken skin powder) to global dishes so all over the map, they read like Anthony Bourdain's fall season lineup.
It was a strange hodgepodge that silenced our table for a good five minutes, until someone finally said what everyone was thinking: "It's anunusualmenu, isn't it?"
It was as if they were in the throes of the rewrite when someone ran in and shouted, "Pencils down!" As a result, ordering felt like a game of blindfolded darts.
We started with a plate of spicy Sichuan wings ($10). This dish had already been on Flatiron's menu, but Heaggans has made the sauce more complex with oyster sauce and black vinegar. He also rolls the wings and drumettes in chopped peanuts and puffed rice for extra heft and crunch.
We landed another winner with Cajun Fried Oysters ($12). Fried oysters are having a moment, and I've had them a lot this summer: at a fancy restaurant, a hipster taco joint and a seafood shack. Flatiron's version, served with a mild remoulade, beat them all. The golden exterior is thin and crisp, so you can really taste the juicy oyster inside.
Heaggans spent his formative years in North Carolina. Both his Southern proclivities and way with a fryer show in the Flatiron Bucket ($18), a steel pail of fried Cornish game hen brined in dill pickle juice. The best bites are where Heaggans has dressed the chicken with a tangy house hot sauce.
Inspired by the G.D. Ritzy's burgers Heaggans loved as a kid, one of the first moves he made was installing a flat-top grill to reimagine the Flatiron Burger ($14). The flat-top changes everything. The burger is terrific-crisp at the edges, and more like the trendy, diner-style burgers that are so popular (and so good) now.
Although these dishes were above average, it's the kind of food I imagine a bunch of guys would happily tear into after a night at the bars.
Then I met a friend for dinner and found the menu had evolved again. The dishes were more refined.
Scallop Crudo ($15) is the kind of ultra-fresh, sophisticated dish you wouldn't expect to see at the Flatiron, and a sign Heaggans won't be afraid to take risks. The raw mollusks are sliced lengthwise and set in a shallow pool of cool brown tea spiced with Nora chili and sesame. Scallops are surprisingly creamy when uncooked. They need texture, and Heaggans brings it with mild white onion and fresh microgreens.
The Roasted Pork Coppa ($16) was another sign of more good things to come. A fork-tender slab of roasted pork shoulder tip sits atop several ladlefuls of coconut polenta. Half-moons of charred pink grapefruit and wilted parsley lend a pleasant bitterness.
As Heaggans rotates new dishes on, afew need to be recognized as creative risks that failed.
The Crisp Pig Ear ($5) sounded like a pork-lover's delight but resembled a tangle of hard, flavorless shoestring fries. The first bite of Shrimp Tostada ($6) was the last when I caught a whiff of something dank-like a walk-in cooler.
But perhaps the most unappetizing was the Lamb Ribs ($16). Already gloppy with a pomegranate molasses sauce, the fatty ribs are then drizzled with a superfluous kiwi mint tzatziki. Kiwi and yogurt are like Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts-great on their own but just so obviously wrong together.
The menu may have stagnated over the years, but Flatiron's bar offerings have stayed on trend. Local craft beers dominate the taps at the small slab-of-wood bar that greets you when you walk in.Before summer ends, I'd like one more Garden Party ($9). Made with Watershed Four Peel Gin, St. Germain, pink grapefruit juice and a sprig of fresh rosemary, the refreshing cocktail is slightly fruity and smells like a cool pine forest.
The makeover has not extended to Flatiron's no-frills dining room. The worn wood, black-and-white checkered floor and steep stairs leading to the basement restrooms make it feel like a classic, grungy New York bar that's been around forever.
The servers don't obsess over things like sequencing of courses, but they are competent enough for a place this casual. They also seem happy about the new direction, even as they field complaints from regulars who want to know where the muffuletta went (it's back for now).
As the menu evolves and Heaggans gets better at editing his ideas, Flatiron is worth a revisit for dinner and drinks with friends. Just throw your darts wisely.