It’s late Sunday night at Inga’s Bar in Brooklyn and the dining room is quiet. At the same time, the places in the bar where I finish dinner begin to fill up with waiters who have sent their last customers into the night.
When they relax over cocktails and wine, something unusual happens: they very passionately discuss with each other their favorite dishes on the menu. Several dishes are commendable, but the common favorite is a salad called Celery Victor. Someone orders one, and when it arrives, talk about its merits begins again.
They can’t suck up to the chef, their boss Sean Rembold; he’s out of earshot at the far end of the bar. Do they do it for me? I had already eaten a plate of the crunchiest giardiniera I could think of, and then added fisherman’s stew, a plate of hake, clams and mussels in a tomato broth so thick and spicy it would have made an excellent arrabbiata pasta. While my perfect fisherman’s stew probably contains more seafood, I’m perfectly content, and clearly at the end of my meal.
The only explanation that makes any sense is that this is what they mean. And while employee approval is usually out of place in a review, I’m telling you about this conversation because it illustrates something about Inga.
Located on the corner of Brooklyn Heights, this place is divided into a bar and dining area connected by a wide walkway, but separate enough that each has its own vibe. Many restaurants use their bar as a waiting room and seating area. Inga’s has avoided this since it opened its doors in March, and one result is that the bar has already become a local hangout. (Probably included some fired Loyalists from Jack’s Horse Tavern, 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 speak their mind. Workers at the end of their shift simply continue to follow the pattern set by the civilian drunkards.
They’re also right about Victor’s celery. In its original form, conceived in a San Francisco hotel over 100 years ago, the salad consists of stewed celery stalks in vinaigrette, garnished with anchovies, and served cold. Perhaps feeling it would be too celery for modern visitors, Mr. Rembold added other greens and leaves to the picture, as well as bits of parmesan and pickled mustard seeds. Salads at Inga’s are never an afterthought. Even a simple plate with a delicate salad and herbs could start a conversation.
There really is no bar food at Inga’s Bar, despite the name and despite the cheeseburger on the menu – very good and unpretentious, on a soft toasted bun with white onions, crunchy pickles, sweet pickled bread and a stack of two pressed beef patties, each in its own shiny orange shell of melted American cheese. You wouldn’t think it out of place in a tavern like this, where mugs are kept in a freezer under the beer taps and food is served in plastic baskets, unless you knew the pickles are made on site. Okay, dark fries from scratch with freshly whipped mayonnaise might give the game away too.
Mr. Rembold’s heart is at the heart of seasonal cooking, in which local ingredients serve traditional dishes from France, Italy and the United States. Inga’s Bar is famous for its sausages. He makes a coarse-grained rustic pâté wrapped in bacon and served with a pat of sour-milk butter and a handful of bitter young mustard greens, as well as a satiny mortadella seasoned with brown butter and a curly mane of Microplaned Gouda that dwarfs many Bolognese imports.
I wouldn’t say Mr. Rembold cooks comfort food, but a fair amount of it could be prescribed to treat the gnawing anxiety that Holly Golightly called mean reds. There is polenta with chopped green onions and fried mushrooms; grated conte and warm egg yolk sit on top, waiting to be added to the polenta. Each bite is individual, but not so much that it alarms someone.
Irish lamb stew is actually more like pot-au-feu. It’s a soothing, light broth that you can drink between spoonfuls of tender stewed shank, small Japanese turnips, and velvety-soft kale leaves. Beneath those leaves are more leaves – fresh mint, a classic pairing with lamb, of course, but pretty much the last thing you’d expect to find in an Irish stew.
However, it’s kind of a thoughtful take on an older idea that Brooklyn visitors came to expect from Mr. Rembold when he was something of a Johnny Appleseed figure in the local food scene. Over the years he has worked as a chef at Diner, Marlow & Sons and Reynard restaurants (all in Williamsburg and belong to the same group), teaching young chefs the DIY philosophy along the way. it was still new to Brooklyn when he started practicing it.
After leaving Reynard about five years ago (it later closed), Mr. Rembold did not manage the kitchen of another restaurant until Jack the Horse went on the market. There were pressed-tin ceilings and wooden floors. He and designer Caron Callahan, his marriage and business partner, hung vintage paintings and drawings on the walls, collected grandma’s silverware and floral plates. The effect is something like a tea salon, where the bohemia of the last century could eat cake and existentialism.
In fact, the best of Inga’s desserts is a cake with a low, juicy, yellow center and a high, plump lip around the edge. It reminded me of gâteau Breton. Instead, I should have looked at the Midwest because it is much more closely related to the St. Louis delicacy known as sticky butter cake. Spicy syrup was poured over it, and boiled apples were put on the side dish, and while I ate it, all the day’s worries seemed to have gone to some other city. Lately, life has turned into an endless existentialist drama, but at least we still have cake.
What do the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.