It probably won’t come as a surprise to you all that I eat out a lot. Sometimes it’s four nights a week, sometimes more. A night at home is a rare luxury. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great gig, but it does have its drawbacks and they mainly relate to my health and more specifically trying to avoid massive weight gain. When you’re eating restaurant food daily you’re taking in a lot more calories and fat than you would if you cooked at home. Thankfully, lots of chefs use fantastic ingredients and are vigilant about the seasons and supporting local farmers, so that sort of takes away some of the guilt, but it’s always a struggle for me to keep my weight at a relatively normal level. And as I’ve gotten older, that’s gotten more difficult. I have some tricks that I use, nothing earth shattering, but simple techniques to keep the weight (and cholesterol) from creeping on (and up). I don’t finish everything on my plate, I try not to partake excessively of the bread basket, I eat light meals during the day (though I never skip breakfast), and I get to the gym at least five days a week for a solid (hard) workout.
But all of my vigilance and discipline seems to have vanished recently and I can only blame one thing: Char No. 4. Ever since this Southern-inspired American whiskey bar and neighborhood restaurant opened a few blocks from my house I have become a very naughty girl. I can’t stop eating when I am there. I walk inside and smell the smoky meats, and all my control is lost. This week, I went back twice. Last week, three times. And now I can’t fit into my jeans. I’m in trouble and I need an intervention. HELP ME PLEASE!
The problem is two-fold. First, the food at Char No. 4, which is owned by Sean Josephs (a sommelier who’s worked at Chanterelle and most recently at Primehouse) and Michael Tsoumpos (a whiskey hound), is very good. It’s also reasonably priced (a nice perk). Second, the menu is centered around several of my favorite foods, all of which tend to be deadly to the waistline: pork (shoulder, belly, smoked, cured, you name it), cheese (fried, melted), butter (everywhere) and bourbon (300 choices at the bar, with 150 sourced from our own domestic supply served by the ounce or in a list of house cocktails). All in all, a great combination.
The first sign of a self-control problem came after my first bite of the lamb pastrami, which chef Matt Greco (a sweet Texan native who worked under Andrew Carmellini at A Voce) cures in-house and slices into feather light sheets and serves piled on warm, buttery rye caraway toast swiped with coriander aioli and garnished with pickled onions and mustard seeds ($12). One bite of the spice-cured meat against the bright tang of the pickle had me wondering how Katz’s had survived all these years on beef pastrami. Matt Greco’s lamb pastrami is the way to go.
Then there were the oysters, snuggled inside a hot and crunchy casing of cornflakes, served with bacon remoulade ($10). (Yes, bacon is everywhere on the menu. Yum.) I think my pants started to tighten their grip around my waist about the time of my first serving of fried cheddar cheese curds ($7)—battered gobs of creamy and gooey cheddar that stretches out like hot taffy after one bite, served with a spicy pimento cheese dipping sauce that pays homage to the South’s obsession with pimento cheese.
Being from Texas, Matt has a natural born instinct to reach for the smoker. Pork shoulder is turned into a fantastic chopped pork sandwich ($14) that’s tender, smoky and just saucy enough, served inside a big fluffy bun with his house-made pickled onions, slivered sweet red peppers, and a side of terrific smoky baked beans heavily laden with bacon. House-smoked bacon also shows up in a “salad” that’s really just the bacon set on top of some black-eyed peas topped with a few microgreens ($11). If they added a fried egg on top, it would be even better. But even so, that bacon is bound to start a cult following. A half-chicken ($20), shellacked with honey, also spends some time in that smoker, to great effect. The mustard greens it’s served with are spicy and bitter, and that sharpness plays well off the sweetness of the meat. While I think the brine may make the bird a little too salty, it was the most tender and juicy chicken I’ve eaten in recent memory.
If you really want to throw caution (and your size 27 jeans) to the wind, order the BLT. Instead of ordinary bacon as the focus of this sandwich, Matt deep-fries a hefty slab of house-smoked pork belly and layers it up with pickled tomatoes, chile mustard aioli and a gratuitous slice of romaine ($10). It really should come with some sort of surgeon general’s warning. Why does everything that’s so bad for you taste so damn good? Oh well. Nobody said life was fair.
Matt’s also making his own pork and sage sausage, served at brunch with poached eggs and wonderfully creamy grits and at dinner in a rustic fall plate that includes Swiss chard, sweet onions, and prunes ($16). But the grilled hanger steak was my favorite dinner entrée because it shows off perfect technique. The steak is seared so it’s ruby red and juicy in the middle and nice and salty and charred on the outside, with a hill of crispy pork fat fried potatoes cut in little cubes and a sweet-tangy-spicy barbecue sauce that needs a home on a shelf in Fairway. And it’s not just at night that the menu works its “eat me” magic.
Craig and I have had brunch at Char No. 4 every weekend for the past three weeks. Eggs Benedict are served with a twin set of fluffy biscuits and perfectly poached eggs all sitting on top of a thick slice of house-smoked Kentucky ham soaking in—yes, you guessed it—bacon gravy! The chocolate chip pancake, run as a special (you have to ask for it), might bring you to tears. I have rarely been moved this way by a breakfast food. The pancake is miraculously light and fluffy (thanks to whipped egg whites) and weighted down only by a generous amount of semi-sweet chocolate bits. As if this were not enough, the pancake comes in at the size of a Frisbee, and gets topped with pecan butter and a softball-sized scoop of butter pecan ice cream. Yes, Char No. 4 is that kind of place. Excess is seen as the baseline.
On a more recent visit, I decided I’d try to eat light. And surprisingly, this can be done (sort of). Matt’s most memorable salad involves golden beets, fresh and spicy arugula, and a generous sprinkling of nutty toasted pecans all dressed in a zesty warmly spiced vinaigrette made from pickled peaches. This dressing is amazing—pungent and sweet, it’s also destined for a bottle on a shelf in some fancy gourmet shop. I also had the smoky eggplant stew ($6), which was slight disappointment because it’s not really a stew at all. It’s a cold eggplant salad, and while it’s not bad, it’s not what I expected. It’s more like a Texan’s version of a babaganoush that might be served with Texas toast. But something called a stew brought to mind a hot bowl of smoky eggplant chili, which is not what they’re serving. The clam chowder ($9) is also a weak link. It’s richly flavored with bacon but it’s too thin. I for one like a thick chowdah. If you can stand a spoon up in it, even better.
Still, I have not managed to stay away from Char No. 4. It’s just too easy a place to love. The bar is warm and inviting, lit with barrel-shaped lanterns meant to evoke a bourbon cask. You can just as easily stop in for a cocktail and a plate of lamb pastrami and fried cheese curds as you can settle in at one of the booths (a little narrow, but comfortable) in the dining room for dinner. Their outdoor patio is now furnished and gets some nice warm sun so it’s perfect for brunch on a brisk fall afternoon. I’m not sure how I’ll deal with my addiction to Char No. 4, but I am confident I’ll figure it out. Maybe I’ll hire a personal trainer? Maybe I’ll fast the previous day? Or maybe I’ll just buy a bigger pair of jeans.