Friday, April 3, 2015

New American with Nordic Flare at mrnilsson

Cod Chicharron with American Caviar & Dill
at Sage General Store
24-20 Jackson Ave., Long Island City

You may already know Sage General Store as the home of the three-course bacon brunch that begins with a cheddar biscuit with bacon marmalade and ends with a double chocolate and bacon brownie capped with Jack Daniels whipped cream.  But if you think you know the menu like the back of your hand, get ready for a pleasant surprise.  The d├ęcor, cutlery, china, and even the napkin folding is now changing for dinner service with the arrival of Long Island City’s newest dinner pop-up—mrnilsson.  The flare is Nordic, and the menu is focused around four and seven course tastings, as well as a meticulously crafted a la carte selection of small and large bites.

“It’s a big change for the neighborhood,” explains owner Leslie Nilsson, “which thinks of us as comfort food—but I just wanted to do something different at night.  It’s such a cozy, romantic place.  And the people [who] have come for the tasting menus—man, you can feel the joy.  They’re having such a refined, excellent experience right here in Long Island City.”  She envisions Court Square to become a food destination, with such neighbors as M. Wells Steakhouse and LIC Market.

“The original restaurant, Sage American Kitchen, was across the street on Jackson,” Nilsson recalls, “and just had three seats in the window.”  They offered high end takeout with a catering kitchen in the back.  In 2008, she opened Sage General Store at its present location.  Shortly thereafter the recession hit hard—which, luckily, is when they appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.  But after six successful years, Ms. Nilsson was itching for something to change.

In terms of the bacon brunch, she smiles, “That’s not broken, so let’s not fix it.”  Customers can still enjoy the charm of the General Store menu six days a week for breakfast and lunch.  But when lunch service draws to a close, the paper plates are put away and the fine china comes out.  Wooden pastry crates are removed, and votives are lit next to pink and purple bouquets of wildflowers.  But what exactly is behind the name change?

Birch beer glazed lamb belly with pumpkin milk

“We like to say, ‘Mr. Nilsson is at the Sage General Store,’” says Ms. Nilsson, whose Scandinavian ancestry serves as partial explanation of the name.  “Mr. Nilsson is also Pippi Longstocking’s monkey,” she laughs.  “As a kid, I always thought it was funny he shared my name.”  Several chef resumes sent to her were addressed to Mr. Nilsson, which also played a factor.  But the real reason is her adoration of Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, whose record, Nilsson Schmilsson, was here all-time favorite album.

“[The chefs] are rock ‘n roll guys,” she explains.  “It’s not all just delicate and beautiful.  There’s some real meat and power behind what they are doing.  Greg [Proechel] came from Blanca and Eleven Madison Park, which just got their four star review again.  Michael [Kollarik] has cooked at the Dutch and for Momofuku.”

And yes, the food is beyond special.

“Because of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, we became famous for our rotisserie chicken and macaroni and cheese.  So the guys have put together this genius chicken dish.  They debone the rotisserie chicken, and then they sous vide it so it gets super deliciously tender, and then they bake it in a hot oven to get it super crispy.  Then they puree the macaroni and cheese—it’s the same recipe with the five cheeses—and then they foam it onto the plate with crispy kale chips.  My daughter is fourteen, and she says, ‘Mom, I could eat that every night.’”  After just one bite, I think I would gladly devour it daily, as well.

When asked if there is anything on the tasting menu that cannot be ordered a la carte, she replies, “We would open it up.  We don’t want to be dictators.  People think, because it’s a tasting menu, that it’s highfalutin—but it’s not.  The food is really accessible, and the guys serve it to you and explain it themselves.  They don’t go overboard and tell you the province of where the cow came from—we’re here to have fun—we’re not here to bore you.”

Dry aged Long Island Duck with Kumquats, Rutabaga, and Blackened Eggplant Puree
Mrnilsson is a New American restaurant with a Nordic flare, which has a lot to do with the artistry of the plating. “It’s also about foraging, pickling, and the integrity of the ingredients,” explains Nilsson, “—and treating the vegetables with great respect.”

“Walk-ins are definitely available.  We want it to be a neighborhood spot for those nights when you don’t want a burger.  I’m so proud of being in Long Island City for 18 years.  I feel like LIC Market and M. Wells have upped the game, so I decided I needed to up the game here, as well.”

She has certainly upped the game with a superior team of fresh talent, creating artistic dishes worthy of multiple accolades.  If this is the direction the neighborhood is headed, we are in pretty good hands.

mrnilsson on Urbanspoon
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