In the beginning weeks of Ansill , there would be at least one table of diners every night who left before they started.
I can imagine the collective gulp as they arrived to the former meat- loaf comfort corner that was Judy's and perused some of the new highlights from Ansill 's array of little plates. Treats such as venison tartare, scrambled duck eggs, lamb's tongue, and bone-marrow crostini surely sent a shiver down their squeamish spines, and it would be a short, quick trip to the door.
"I guess they were out of their comfort zone," manager Michael Lehane says.
I can't blame diners for refusing to eat a food they consider scary. Not when I can't persuade my own wife to eat eggplant (let alone sashimi - don't even start). But for those capable of setting aside their inhibitions for a night, Ansill should be required eating.
The brainchild of Pif chef and owner David Ansill and the nightly product of his chef de cuisine, Kibett Mengech, this casual bistro may just be the best destination I've found to discover the wonderful and wacky world of weird meat gastronomy. The exquisitely cooked plates are small and affordable - so the risk is minimal. But there is hardly a bum dish among the 40-plus items.
It even has a fabulous wine list and craft beer bar to loosen you up for the journey. So grab a glass of roasty German black lager, a goblet of Languedoc viognier, or a swirl of Spanish rioja, and buckle up for a flavor adventure. Because you simply haven't lived until you've tasted this venison tartare: a pedestal of diced ruby meat shined with raw quail egg and mustard that creates a sensation - so sensuously soft, so deeply fruity - that exists nowhere else in the natural world.
OK, maybe we shouldn't start there.
There is, after all, a handful of plates that even timid diners could love. There is a small but marvelous cheese board, with choices ranging from nutty Spanish Idiazabal with homemade quince paste to tangy Point Reyes Blue to a goudalike slice of orange Mimolette, whose aged butterscotch richness is smartly paired with the spicy sweetness of pear mostarda preserves.
There are also several spectacular vegetable tapas, including a cool pea soup ringing with mint and yogurt, a bowl of roasted cauliflower cloaked in pureed truffles, and a sublime plate of porcini mushrooms, sauteed brown and tossed with morsels of oozy taleggio cheese.
By now, you've moved on to an aromatic Belgian saison ale from Dupont or an earthy, Burgundian pinot noir, so it's time for a nibble of charcuterie. A plate of smoky speck ham with balsamic-soaked figs, perhaps, or a few gossamer slices of velvety, house-cured duck prosciutto with salty marcona almonds.
There also are reasonably mainstream plates of beef (a lovely hanger steak with whole roasted shallots) and shellfish (succulent scallops with bitter endive; a trio of sweet langostinos striped with dark truffle vinaigrette). Beyond that point, however, the familiar food beacons become more scarce.
But anyone who has dined at Pif, the Italian Market French bistro where Ansill made his reputation as one of the most sophisticated cooks on the BYOB circuit, knows the chef has a rare affinity for turning offal into gold.
The daring discipline reaches new refinement and whimsy at Ansill , though the space still has the casual warmth of a neighborhood haunt. Judy's old glass-block windows have been replaced with airy see-through glass, its walls painted cozy pumpkin and goblin green. The service is an impressive match - unpretentious but polished, with astute advice and seamless pacing of a potentially tricky multicourse meal.
It also helps to have such a talented hand behind the stove as Mengech, a Kenyan-born alum of Striped Bass and Le Bec-Fin, whose crisp technique and smart ideas gain vivid focus inside the limited small-plate frame.
Perfectly crisped sweetbreads tumble with spring fava beans and fresh morels over a puree of tarragon-scented peas. Sublimely tender quail, darkened from its sweet balsamic marinade, arrives over peppery arugula pesto. Scrambled duck eggs are as fluffy as a souffle cloud billowing around morsels of moist smoked trout.
A warm slice of Spanish mackerel plays against the cool crunch of celery root salad. Tiny crostini rounds bear coins of creamy bone marrow, griddle-crisped and speckled with pink sea salt.
There were a couple of disappointments. The braised pork belly, for example, was surprisingly bland. The scallions with overly chunky romesco lacked snap. The black bass ceviches were too subtly dressed.
If nothing else, Ansill is a trove of bold flavors - even in relative miniature. A parcel of slow-braised osso buco meat served over a round of toasted brioche could be the centerpiece of a meal. Throw in a side of lamb's tongue, its patélike medallions shingled with rounds of fingerling potato, and you'll have a feast.
The desserts by Ansill 's wife, Catherine Gilbert-Ansill , had their own intrigue. Panna cotta came scattered with crunchy bee pollen. Rice pudding brought roasted apples in calvados caramel. A grilled panini sandwiched warm gianduja chocolate with fresh raspberries.
But the saffron cheesecake with spiced red wine syrup was the stunner - as gold as Spanish treasure, and radiating the glow of saffron's sunny perfume. But it was so perfectly sweetened and so porcelain-smooth, I wasn't going anywhere until it was done. On the city's most exotic menu, I'd found my comfort zone.