It’s late on a Sunday night in Inga’s bar in Brooklyn, and the dining room goes quiet. Meanwhile, the places in the bar, where I finish having dinner, are beginning to fill with waiters who have dismissed their last customers during the night.
As they unwind over cocktails and wine, something unusual happens: they talk to each other, with great enthusiasm, about their favorite dishes on the menu. Several items get praise, but the consensus favorite seems to be a salad called Celery Victor. Someone orders one, and when it arrives, we start talking about its merits again.
They can’t kiss the leader, their boss Sean Rembold; he’s out of earshot at the back of the bar. Do they do this for me? I have already eaten a plate of the crispiest giardiniera I can remember and followed by a fisherman’s stew, a bowl of hake, cockles and mussels in a tomato broth so thick and spicy it could have been made into an excellent arrabbiata pasta. While my ideal fisherman’s stew probably contains more seafood, I’m perfectly happy, and clearly at the end of my meal.
The only explanation that makes sense is that they mean it. And while the endorsement of paid workers doesn’t normally have a place in a review, I’m telling you about this conversation because it illustrates something about Inga.
Located on a corner of Brooklyn Heights, the place is divided into a bar and a dining room, connected by a wide passage but separated enough that each has its own atmosphere. Many restaurants use their bar as a waiting area and as extra seating. Inga’s has avoided this since opening its doors in March, and one of the results is that the bar is already a local hangout. (It probably hosted loyalists displaced from Jack the Tavern Horse, a longtime local favorite that closed last year.) Sit down with a book and you might be asked what you’re reading; order a celery salad and someone will advise. End-of-shift employees are just following the pattern set by civilian drinkers.
They are also right about Victor celery. In its original form, designed in a San Francisco hotel over 100 years ago, the salad consists of celery stalks braised in vinaigrette, garnished with anchovies and served cold. Perhaps feeling that would be a bit too avant-garde for modern diners, Mr. Rembold brought other greens and leafy vegetables into the picture, along with slivers of parmesan cheese and pickled mustard seeds. Salads at Inga are never an afterthought. Even the simple plate of tender lettuces and herbs could be a conversation starter.
Inga’s Bar doesn’t serve bar food, really, despite its name and despite the cheeseburger on its menu – a really good, unpretentious one, on a fluffy toasted bun with white onions, crispy dill pickles, sweet bread and butter pickles and a stack of two pressed beef patties, each in its own bright orange sheath of melted American cheese. You wouldn’t think it out of place in the kind of tavern where cups are kept in a freezer under beer taps and food is served in plastic baskets, unless you know the pickles are made on site . OK, dark fries from scratch with freshly whipped mayonnaise might also give the game.
Mr. Rembold’s heart lies in a seasonal cuisine that puts regional ingredients at the service of traditional dishes from France, Italy and the United States. Inga’s Bar excels in charcuterie. He makes a rustic, large-grain pâté wrapped in bacon and serves it with a slab of cultured butter and a handful of bitter mustard sprouts, as well as a satiny mortadella, dressed in browned butter and a frizzy mane of Gouda. Microplaned, which eclipses many Bolognese imports.
I wouldn’t say Mr. Rembold cooks comfort food, but a fair amount could be prescribed to treat the gnawing anxiety that Holly Golightly called the bad guys red. There’s polenta with chopped chives and roasted mushrooms; grated Comté cheese and a hot egg yolk on top, waiting to be incorporated into the polenta. Every bite is different, but not in a way that alarms anyone.
Irish lamb stew is actually more like a stew. It has a soothing light broth that you can sip between dollops of tender braised shank, baby Japanese turnips and velvety cabbage leaves. Beneath those leaves are more leaves – fresh mint, a classic pairing with lamb, sure, but almost the last thing you’d expect to find in an Irish stew.
It is, however, the kind of thoughtful contribution to an older idea that Brooklyn diners have come to expect from Mr. Rembold back when he was something of a Johnny Appleseed figure on the local food scene. Over the years he worked as a chef dinner, Marlow and sons and Reynard (all in Williamsburg and all from the same group), training young cooks along the way in a nose-to-tail DIY philosophy that was still new to Brooklyn when he began practicing it.
After leaving Reynard about five years ago (it later closed), Mr. Rembold did not run another restaurant kitchen until the Jack the Horse space came on the market. It had pressed tin ceilings and wooden floors. Him and the designer Caron Callahan, her partner in marriage and in business, hung vintage paintings and drawings on the walls, and collected grandmother’s silverware and plates with floral designs. The effect is something like a tea room where the bohemians of the last century could have fed on cakes and existentialism.
In fact, the best of Inga’s desserts is a cake with a low, rich, yellow center and a high, puffy lip on the edge. It reminded me of a Breton cake. I should have looked to the Midwest instead, since it’s much more closely tied to the St. Louis delicacy known as Butter cake and flowing heart. Spiced syrup has been poured over it and there are poached apples on the side, and since I’ve been eating it all day, the marigolds seem to have moved to another town. Life lately has become one endless existentialist drama, but at least we still have some cake.
What do the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not rated by stars.