SOMETIMES FINE DINING is like a trust fall: You look at the ingredients and just have to pray that the chef's got your back.
Staring down a new restaurant's menu littered with culinary non sequiturs can be daunting—greens, sorghum, honey, dry Monterey Jack cheese, and bee pollen (!?)—but Taylor Railworks' chef, Erik Van Kley, isn't an unknown. He was the longtime head chef of Little Bird Bistro and sous chef at Le Pigeon, where he helped toss French cuisine on its head with truly spectacular results. Now he's left the nest and is flying high near the train tracks in Inner Southeast, in an industrial building outfitted with warm wood and a bustling open kitchen.
Start at the bar—which you'll have to do anyway during peak hours, since the restaurant is already quoting hour-plus waits on weekends. Bar manager Gabriela Ramos' favorite cocktail is the Negroni (making her a woman after my own heart), and her bitter, sour, and stirred drinks play to those who think pink drinks shouldn't taste like a Jolly Rancher. There's an impressive sampling of vermouth ["Vermouth for Dummies," Lush Life, Nov 17], and the Pinewood Barron ($10) Negroni has smoky lapsang tea that blows down your throat like a puff of campfire after the bitter liquor.
The food is loosely described as American—probably because it provides a melting pot for the borderless dishes Van Kley dreams up.
You just have to believe that a salmon poke with avocado, an egg yolk, sumac, radish, and black sesame paste ($13) will taste great. Of course it does, and it's beautifully plated, with pink fish radiating from the yellow yolk with brushes of black paste and bright radishes. This marriage of Middle Eastern and Hawaiian cuisine rests comfortably next to an Indian-infused fried chicken ($21) that's bursting with curry flavor and served with crisp greens, mint, and fresh herbs to lighten it up.
You won't find the long-braised meats of Van Kley's French cooking days, but he's not shunning his past—foie gras has graced the menu in some form since opening in September, first on brioche with ham and pineapple ($19). Even my formerly vegetarian visitor from California declared it fly.
Not all of the far-flung creations jibe: A $17 bone marrow banh mi plate recycles the restaurant's (delightful) dinner rolls by grilling them and serving them with jalapeño, pickled veg, and two large roasted marrow bones; sadly, these ingredients overwhelm the small amount of marrow that can actually be extracted and applied to the bread in this DIY dish. A bone-in pork chop ($24) was massive and perfectly juicy, but its oversweet brine had a cloying taste that tangy fermented cabbage and mustard seed couldn't overcome.
But it's the raw and cooked fish preparations that are almost uniformly perfect, putting Taylor Railworks high on my list of great seafood spots: oysters ($3 each) with a diced apple mignonette; delicately sweet seared scallops littered with pistachios and gone punk with spicy mayo, jalapeño, and minty perilla herb ($16); and the funky head-on prawn atop the Noodles Alla Johnny ($15).
But here's what to order for sure: a glass or bottle of one of my new favorite white wines, the crisp Stift Goettweig Grüner Veltliner ($13/44), and the show-stopping one-pound bowl of snow crab legs ($35). They arrive partially cracked and look like a sea monster escaping its bowl, done up with sweet chile sauce, ample cilantro, bok choy, and grilled dinner rolls to sop up the goodness. It's a highly unrefined affair, cracking and clawing away at the sweet meat while squirting crab juice on your neighbors. It's fantastic.
If you're too full for dessert, there's not too much to mourn over, although the chocolate stout cake and coffee malt ice cream ($9) and a pour of neat Fernet ($9) was a mighty decent way to cap off a night of eating. Taylor Railworks was high on the list of anticipated openings this year, and hype can be a dangerous mistress. Fortunately, this team earns a solid vote of confidence.
Tues-Sun, 5-10 pm. Full bar. Reservations accepted (and recommended for a weekend night).