It’s late on a Sunday night at Inga’s Bar in Brooklyn and the dining room is getting quiet. The seats at the bar, where I am finishing dinner, are starting to fill with servers who have sent their last customers into the night.
As they relax over cocktails and wine, something unusual happens: they chat with each other, very enthusiastically, about their favorite things on the menu. Several items come in for praise, but the consensus favorite seems to be a salad called celery Victor. Someone orders one, and when he arrives, the conversation about its merits begins again.
They can’t kiss the chef, their boss Sean Rembold; he is out of earshot at the end of the bar. Are they doing this for me? I’ve already eaten a plate of the crunchiest giardiniera I can remember, followed by fisherman’s stew, a bowl of hake, cockles and mussels in tomato stock so thick and spicy it could have made an excellent pasta arrabbiata. While my ideal fisherman’s stew probably has more seafood, I’m completely satisfied and clear by the end of my meal.
The only explanation that makes any sense is that they mean it. And while the endorsement of paid employees normally has no place in a review, I’m telling you about this conversation because it illustrates something about Inga’s.
Located on a corner of Brooklyn Heights, the place is divided into a bar and dining room, connected by a wide passageway but separated enough that each has its own atmosphere. Many restaurants use their bar as a waiting room and landing. Inga’s has avoided this since it opened in March, and as a result the bar is already a local hangout. (It probably took some displaced loyalists from Jack the Horse Tavern, a long-running local favorite that closed last year.) Sit down with a book and you may be asked what you’re reading; order a celery salad and someone will come up with an opinion. The workers at the end of the shift just continue in the pattern set by the burger drinkers.
They are also right about the celery Victor. In its original form, conceived more than 100 years ago in a San Francisco hotel, the salad consists of braised celery sticks in vinaigrette, topped with anchovies and served cold. Perhaps feeling this would be a little too celery-advanced for modern diners, Mr. Rembold has framed other vegetables and leaves, along with shards of Parmesan cheese and pickled mustard seeds. Salads at Inga’s are never an afterthought. Even the simple plate of tender lettuce and herbs could start a conversation.
Inga’s Bar doesn’t actually serve bar food, despite the name and despite the cheeseburger on the menu – a very good and unpretentious, on a soft toasted bun with white onions, crispy dill pickles, sweet pickles of bread and butter and a pile of two pressed beef patties, each in its own glossy orange casing of melted American cheese. You wouldn’t think it was out of place in the kind of tavern where mugs are kept in a freezer under the beer taps and the food is served in plastic baskets unless you knew the pickles are made on site. Okay, the dark, fresh fries with freshly whipped mayonnaise might also give the game away.
Mr. Rembold’s heart lies in the 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. It makes a coarse-grained rustic pate wrapped in bacon and serves it with a slab of cultured butter and a handful of bitter young mustard greens, as well as a satiny mortadella dressed with brown butter and a frizzy hair of Microplaned Gouda, which excels at many Bolognese imports.
I wouldn’t say Mr. Rembold cooks comfort food, but a fair amount of it could be prescribed to treat the nagging anxiety that Holly Golightly called the mean red wines. There’s polenta with chopped chives and roasted mushrooms; grated Comté and a warm egg yolk sit on it, waiting to be incorporated into the polenta. Every bite is different, but not in a way that will startle anyone.
The Irish lamb stew is actually more of a pot-au-feu. It has a soothing light broth that you can drink between spoonfuls of tender braised shank, small Japanese turnips and velvety kale leaves. Beneath those leaves are more leaves – fresh mint, of course a classic pairing with lamb, but almost the last thing you’d expect to find in Irish stew.
However, it’s the kind of thoughtful contribution to an older idea that Brooklyn diners used to call Mr. Rembold expected when he was something of a Johnny Appleseed figure in the local food scene. Over the years, he worked as a chef for Diner, Marlow & Sons and Reynard (all in Williamsburg and all owned by the same group), training younger chefs in a nose-to-tail, make-it-yourself philosophy that was new to Brooklyn when he started practicing with it.
After leaving Reynard about five years ago (it was later closed), Mr. Rembold ran no other restaurant kitchen until the Jack the Horse space came on the market. It had pressed tin ceilings and wooden floors. He and the designer Caron Callahan, his partner in marriage and in the business, hung vintage paintings and drawings on the walls and collected granny silverware and floral-patterned plates. The effect is something like a tea room where bohemians of the last century may have fed themselves on cake 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 gâteau Breton. I should have looked to the Midwest instead, as it’s much more closely related to the St. Louis delicacy known as gooey butter cake. Spiced syrup has been spooned over and poached apples on the side, and as I ate it, all the worries of the day seemed to have moved to another city. Life has become an endless existentialist drama lately, but at least we still have pie.
What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not getting star ratings.