Traditionally, there are several ways to generate new restaurants. They can be inspired by timeworn cuisines or by the creativity of inventive chefs. Often, a restaurateur will see a successful restaurant and simply clone it, adding a few cosmetic changes. But these days, many places are inspired merely by buzzwords.
Take the expression “market-driven.” We hear it all the time as the controlling principle of dining establishments, but really, what does it mean? I guess the original significance was that the chef—in a method traceable to Alice Waters and Peter Hoffman—went to the farmers’ market, boutique butcher, or fishmonger and picked what was fresh and local according to season, using it to inspire a menu. This has become a popular paradigm in theory, though restaurants that begin with this high-sounding imperative often renounce it when the restaurant’s core patronage starts to hunker down and prefer certain dishes.
A more recent interpretation of “market-driven” places the market not at some remote locale but right in the restaurant. Thus, through a linguistic sleight of hand, the term is reinterpreted to mean “whatever you choose to place in your own market.” Retailers call this a vertical operation, because things that fail to sell in the store can be burned off in the restaurant.
Take Market Table, for example. Deposited in the hapless former Shopsin’s space, Market Table occupies conjoined storefronts at Carmine and Bedford. One houses a retail market, where you’ll have your pick of dried quinces, organic chocolate bars, burgers sealed in plastic, canned tuna, breakfast pastries, bread sticks, Calabrian confit, and composed salads that fly into the serve-yourself refrigerator case at mealtimes.
Some raw materials end up on the menu, others do not. At the start, Market Table apparently intended to stock fresh produce, glowingly described by its press release: “To the right is a cooler full of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs including corn on the cob, avocados from California, and heirloom tomatoes from a variety of local purveyors. . . .” That idea was quickly shelved, and the strange assortment of commodities in the market prevents you from treating it as your corner grocery, as the release encourages.
In the other room—where the décor is of the bare-bricks-and-dried-flowers sort—a bar tenders such low-alcohol cocktails as the Bedford Stroll (Manischewitz, sparkling cava, and violet liqueur) . . . ugh! The wine list is filled with interesting bottles from small French, Californian, Long Island, South African, and Spanish producers. Unfortunately, the vast majority are over $40. Beer is clearly the way to go.
The entrées reflect the comfort-food tendencies of one of Market Table’s progenitors, Little Owl. No brilliant inventions or science-chef flourishes here. Instead, we have a standard braised lamb shank deposited on a yellowish amalgam that might be cheese grits or puréed root veggies ($20); and the usual skin-on-chicken piece with a single bone protruding like an amputee’s stump ($17). Both are competent but unexciting, and so is a strip steak ($29), disappointingly offered with an artichoke and olive mélange, but no starch. One evening I spotted some sumptuous rib-eyes in the retail store and wondered how long it would take those beauties to crawl over to the restaurant.
Inevitably, fish dominates the short list of entrées, as at the restaurant’s other progenitor, Mermaid Inn. And while Market Table subscribes to modern ideas about being market-driven, it fails to pay attention to the twin concept of sustainability. Thus cod and halibut have been featured, both severely overfished. The exact origin of other species (and hence their endangered status) is left to your imagination. Unsatisfactory in quite another way is the “seafood pan roast” ($22), which usually denotes a Down East assortment opulently bathed in cream and little else. Here, a worthy collection of seafood is mucked up with a tomato-and-fennel gravy shotgunned with fregola, a large-gauge Sardinian couscous.
Most of the action on the menu is among the appetizers. The bacon-wrapped scallops ($12), two to a plate, are large and luscious, while the gnocchi on their cushion of tender beef short ribs are a mini-entrée unto themselves. Pickled onions add a welcome twist to the apple-and-fennel salad ($9). On a visit in late October, an heirloom-tomato salad featured crunchy, unripe specimens in a boring balsamic dressing—think they needed to stay in the store a little longer and soften up.