Whiskey Bar Maysville Raises Volume With Gourmet Grits

Kyle Knall is a chef with two main things going for him, apart from the small matter of big talent.

First, he understands the meaning of hospitality, thanks to four years at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern.

Second, Knall, 27, from Birmingham, Alabama, has a love of southern cooking that enables him to refine that cuisine for diners more familiar with French gastronomy than grits.

Put the two together and you get Maysville, a Flatiron venue that describes itself as an American whiskey bar and restaurant with a menu of smoked and charred food, plus raw and chilled seafood. It’s a friendly place where the cocktails and cooking are as hot as the welcome is warm. (Maysville is the creation of Sean Josephs, the owner of Char No. 4 in Brooklyn.)

Not that this is a place for everyone: Phil Spector might have balked at the wall of sound that hits you as you enter, and you’re about as likely to get a quiet drink as a plate of Escargots de Bourgogne. You might say the ambience reflects the exuberance of Knall’s cooking. Or you might just call it loud.

Maysville -- I learn from the website, not from a deep knowledge of American liquor -- is the Kentucky port town that is the birthplace of bourbon. The whiskey list offers about 200 options and it’s not such a bad start to look at the menu with a glass and some fluke tartare with horseradish and lemon.

Bourbon Kick

The standout dish, one that brought me back three times, is crispy grits with country ham and bourbon aioli ($9). These cubes of corn have a thin crunchy coating that gives way to a soft center like a runny cheese, and then the saltiness of the country ham comes in, helped by a little kick from the bourbon.

I’d normally say grits have limited international appeal, but these should travel as easily as Daft Punk. Indeed, you may feel lucky if you order hay-roasted oysters with salsify and pickled shallots. They have a satisfyingly deep smoky flavor.

The menu changes daily so your choices may be different from mine, but options may include fettuccine ham hock, shrimp, mussels, celery root & horseradish; or grilled Flatiron steak with fingerling potatoes, asparagus and cilantro ($28). A starter of spring pea salad, sugar snaps, English peas, mint & fresh ricotta was a particular favorite of mine.

On a visit to New York from London, I would have liked to see restaurants serve more American wines, especially from New York state. Fortunately, there are at least a few California and Oregon options at Maysville, along with a good range of German whites, which work well with the cuisine.

Engaged Service

The staff members are friendly and informed. Staffan Emvall, a waiter from Vaxjo, in southern Sweden, managed to keep a whole table of us amused and informed over a lengthy dinner. The service was also engaged when I showed up the first time, arriving for lunch without a reservation.

The room is long and the design functional, with the bar down the right-hand side. If you want to escape the noise, your best options are to come for lunch or to arrive early in the evening with a request for a table in the back room. While that isn’t an inviting space, it is relatively peaceful.

Maysville isn’t a gourmet restaurant as such. Knall doesn’t call it southern, either, preferring to describe what he does as American cooking. What he offers is an inventive approach to food, with unfamiliar dishes delivering flavor and those that are more familiar being prepared with skill and flair.

I ate at about 30 restaurants during this visit to New York. Most were at least good and some were outstanding. Maysville? It’s the place that just kept me coming back.

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost? Starters are $15-$20; mains $25-30.

Sound level? A noisy 80+ decibels for dinner.

Inside tip? Ask for the back if you hate noise.

Special feature? Export-quality grits.

Will I be back? Yes.

Date place? Yes.

Rating? **1/2.

Maysville is at 17 West 26th Street, New York. Information: +1-646-490-8240 or http://www.maysvillenyc.com/.

What the Stars Mean:
****         Incomparable food, service, ambience
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor.

Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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