Swine Before Pearlites 

Irving Street Kitchen's Better Half

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WALKING ALONG NW 13TH, past the Irving Street Kitchen on one of their busier nights, you might be startled by the amount of shiny, toned, done-up young Pearlites congregated there—flirting and leaning on the railing of the loading-dock-turned-patio with enough languor and ease they appear to have been specifically installed there, like J. Crew sirens.     You might then wonder how a restaurant serving fried chicken, gravy, étouffée, and duck sausage could possibly maintain a clientele so lithe and pretty.

The answer is inside. Irving Street Kitchen is a lovely place, decked out in rugged wood with a striking art piece called "The Farm" hanging above the bar, and massive wagon-wheel chandeliers sporting exposed-filament light bulbs. The large room is a perfect place to congregate, but often, while the dining room is dotted with empty tables, the bar is packed with stylish drinkers interested in anything but food.

Which is odd, because much of Irving Street Kitchen's menu is quite good. With a focus on Southern-spun American cuisine, they present innocuously pretentious comfort food, with fine results... as long as you stick to the first half of the menu.

Consider the house-made charcuterie. Included is a zesty pepperon, a house-made pastrami with emphasis on pepper and smoke, and a pork-pistachio terrine that's lean enough to feel light while remaining rich.

A satisfying soup of creamed white corn, chanterelles, and spring onions is deliciously straightforward. The dish comes off like creamed corn of yore, sharing that delicacy's sweetness while doing away with its bizarre texture.

Presented in the hull of a large cross-section of bone, the herb-roasted bone marrow is awesome. The generous portion is crusted with savory herbs, and shares the plate with pastrami marmalade—a kind of intense BBQ pastrami hash. The creamy fattiness of the marrow, the crunch of the crostini, and the meaty pastrami are a fulfilling combination.

A grilled octopus salad surprises with tender-enough cephalopod portions and slightly sweet white beans, along with the occasional breath of mint above a spicy arugula base. It's creative and delightful.

Also delightful is thin-sliced Johnston County ham, offering a huge, deeply salted pork flavor not often found outside of North Carolina. Pairing it with a red pepper jelly and some diminutive but spot-on biscuits is kind of brilliant. I'd return just for this simple dish.

All of this is very good, but as the menu at Irving Street Kitchen ventures into the larger and more expensive plates, some unfortunate things begin to occur: Service, once moving at a lively, attentive clip, suddenly slows to a crawl. Sure, water is refilled promptly and status updates are frequent, but the food lingers in the kitchen. It's unclear what's happening here, because when the main dishes emerge, they're no better for the wait.

A blackened steak was less blackened than incinerated, with a charcoal flavored crust and dry, chewy interior. On top of that, the brown butter was a black smear that offered no comfort, while the crispy cheddar grits tasted like some kind of gummy hush puppy. Paul Prudhomme would weep.

Veggies don't fare much better in a summer vegetable gratin. Initial hopes of a cheese-coated wonder were dashed by a dish of veggies dotted by tiny bits of goat cheese, with the whole thing set in a kind of heirloom tomato stew tasting of tandoori spice. Pretty, true, and not particularly unpleasant—until reaching the burned edges of summer squash that tipped the mess into "meh" territory.

Better is a dish of seafood étouffée featuring catfish, crab, and lobster. The dark roux is aggressively salted, but not unfortunately so—still, it doesn't leave much room for the surprisingly compatible flavors of crustacean and catfish. They deserve more room to roll about.

Better still is a fried chicken with a cracker-crisp crust and outrageously good gravy. One server suggested I might want more gravy, and she was right. Yes, the mashed potatoes and greens were fine, and the chicken meat moist, if not particularly flavorful—but that gravy, spooned liberally on the whole shebang like some kind of buttermilky, porky flood, made everything so much better.

Clearly, the attractive drinkers who flock to Irving Street Kitchen are not availing themselves of the restaurant's less liquid joys. If they were, there would be less languorous lounging and way more straight-up, food-coma wallowing. I expect the scene could change with a few tweaks to the entrées. It really wouldn't take much, and I eagerly await the time when all of Irving Street Kitchen's dishes are as good as their best.

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