The latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Harlem for warm pumpernickel baguettes and vanilla butter.
I almost gave up on the Mountain Bird, a tiny, aggressively atmospheric French bistro that has now been housed in two unlikely locations: a generic stretch of 145th Street and, after a sudden closure there followed by a nearly year-long hiatus, at its current spot in El Barrio, a semi-permanent pop-up within a catering company called Tastings Social.
At its original location, owners Kenichi (the chef) and Keiko (front of the house) Tajima served a poultry-heavy menu of head-to-talon dishes. The curtains were lacy, the floors tiled, the china monogrammed, the decor grandmotherly. I made the pilgrimage one freezing February night, and it was lonely inside. The room smelled strongly of disinfectant. The food was fine, neither as exciting nor as adventurous as it sounded. And after just a handful of months and surprisingly strong reviews, Mountain Bird was closed.
It seemed like the end of the story, but the Tajimas were not so easily dissuaded from their concept, and this past May they took over what might have once been the garage of an East Harlem townhouse. The new Mountain Bird menu is nearly the same as before, with a few additions. The dainty curtains and MB china have been uncrated and put back into service, as have the rococo table lamps and a soundtrack of sad-sounding French hits from long ago.
The new room is narrow and deep rather than shallow and wide, the floors are now slate, and the Tajimas have really gone to town with the vintage French mise-en-scene. It's also one of the darkest restaurants I've eaten in all year, and even with many of the 31 seats occupied last Saturday night around 9 p.m., the noise and energy level was low.
And on my first visit to Mountain Bird 2.0, on a Thursday evening? Place oozed ennui. Make sure you naturally have plenty to talk about with your dining companions here, because you won't be getting a boost from your surroundings.
The food at Mountain Bird is wildly uneven, so much so that I returned for a third dinner mostly to confirm how mediocre-to-unpleasant everything was, and instead they served me a terrific meal that now has me eager to return for a fourth.
First, the good stuff.
The Black Truffle Wings were crisp and juicy, sticky with a balsamic reduction, redolent with the luxurious fungi. Cleverly, the wings arrive sitting in a nest of celery straw drizzled with creamy parmesan dressing. Also memorable was my crock of Shrimp Mac & Cheese, the chewy, creamy pasta generously studded with fat chunks of the sweet shellfish, a lobster bisque cream sauce adding to the richness of the dish. This new version—chef Tajima added both the shrimp and a hint of vanilla—is a welcome upgrade from the rather blah one I ate up on 145th Street.
But what really blew me away last Saturday was Tajima's Ostrich Steak Haché, which basically just means "bunless burger," but man is this anything but ordinary. Covered in a lively green peppercorn sauce, seared to a crunch on the patty's exterior and left a bright rare-red on the inside (which is apparently the best way to eat an ostrich), it was exciting, unusual, deftly prepared, everything you want to experience in a destination restaurant. The accompanying fries were pretty decent too, especially when dredged in that sauce.
Confusing, then, how this same kitchen crew had made me such a miserable Mountain Bird Cassoulet just two nights earlier, which had all of the expected ingredients—bird leg, sausage, carrots, white beans—but was served so scorchingly hot (I was still burning my mouth a dozen bites in) that everything had melted into a bland mush. Bland, except for that overpowering clove. The duck leg was dry and stringy, and the chicken sausage—or maybe that was the turkey? impossible to tell, it tasted like something pre-packaged you'd buy at the local grocery store. Or, more likely, that you would not buy.
The Gizzard Confit Salad had potential—the actual fried gizzards were delicious—but the small plate sank under the overcooked quail eggs, the unremarkable fingerlings, the limp frisée. One of the most popular Mountain Bird menu items is the Bite Size Head to Toe Sampler, and it's fine, but be warned that you won't actually taste the cock's comb, for example, buried as it is under fried breading and honey mustard, nor the chicken heart, prepared inside what appeared to be a fried spring roll.
Better to start with the satisfyingly rustic Warm Pumpernickel Baguette, though I've eaten it twice now and I'm still not convinced by the accompanying crock of vanilla butter, which is definitely different but not necessary better than regular. I added the optional Liver Mousse my second time around, and this upped the sensual pleasure considerably.
Tough call. Mountain Bird isn't a fun restaurant—you won't get that "no other place I'd rather be" feeling here—though I suppose it could be romantic. Especially doomed-romantic? But when the food is good, it's really good, and you can understand the accolades. Esquire named it one of the 50 best new restaurants in America, but I suggest lowering your expectations from that lofty aerie, recruiting a chatty pal or two, and see if this bird can sing for you.
Tastings Social Presents Mountain Bird (that's the official name) is located at 251 East 110th Street, just west of Second Avenue, and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m., and on Sunday from 11:00 until 3:00 for brunch, and then again from 5 until 9 p.m. Closed Mondays. (212-744-4422, ext 1; tastingsnyc.com/social/)