My Dinner at Inga's
Caron Callahan and Sean Rembold have bottled magic.
I recently finished the book “Lucy by the Sea,” written by Elizabeth Strout. It’s the fourth in a series of books about the character Lucy Barton, a writer, a wife, and a mother; a woman who has overcome a brutal childhood marked by extreme poverty and abuse. (The other books in this series are “I am Lucy Barton,” “Anything is Possible,” and “Oh, William!” I recommend them all.)
“Lucy by the Sea” begins in the foyer of the pandemic, when Lucy’s ex-husband William (with whom she has two children and has remained very close), tells her they need to leave the city because of this “virus” that he’s been hearing about. (He’s a virologist). He schleps her up to Maine with him (to the same town as Olive Kitteridge), where they shelter for the pandemic, meet the locals, host their daughters whose lives are in various states of undoing, and commune with the nooks and crannies of their souls as they sit together in the solitude of days upon days and watch the sea come in and out, and the world around them spin.
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I love Elizabeth Strout, not only because she is an amazing storyteller and a gorgeous writer, but because she is the master of opening up the places inside you that you’ve closed off but may need some visiting. The pandemic is one such “moment” that I have not cared to visit that often. It was a time of shelter-in and curfews, of heartache and hand washing. The frustration of homeschooling and figuring out how to make a living while making sets of ten. There was also turbulence in my heart, in my marriage, and within a year it was over and my kids were living half the time with Craig and half with me. There’s an unspeakable heartbreak that comes with that kind of rupture; the dissolution of a marriage, of a family, even if it’s the “best thing” or “really amicable” or “just a different kind of family,” or whatever other term we use to make ourselves feel better.
During the pandemic there were smaller losses too, the loss of my restaurants. I’ve written about this before, this missing of dining out. Such a first world problem, but it was one I felt deeply.
Restaurants have always been in my life, from the time I was a kid, when my parents divorced and my father could not really cook. He took us out to fancy places like Maxwell's Plum, and Rumplemeyer's, but also to local diners like The Green Kitchen and neighborhood joints like Rupert's on the Upper East Side. These were the places that fed me, that kept me going. Restaurants are where I worked when I first left the law, a young stupidly fearless kid hoping to find a different career. Short of giving birth to my children, restaurants are where nearly every moment of significance in my life has taken place. In restaurants, I found myself. And for a long time during the darkest moments of 2020, they were gone.
Now, finally, we have them back. And I feel a deep sense of gratitude every time I walk into one, or sit at the bar close enough to my neighbor to chat about the weather or the beauty of the salad they’re eating. We have turned a corner. We are back. (Knock on wood.)
I felt that sense of joy, warmth, and comfort so acutely at Inga’s Bar, which opened in May on a storybook corner of Hicks Street in the cultural desert known as Brooklyn Heights, which Inga’s is slowly changing, along with L’apartment 4F and a soon to open new location of Books are Magic. It’s a spot that for a long time held Jack the Horse Tavern, a restaurant I loved, particularly for their cozy bar and their big beautiful burger served on an extra wide English Muffin.
Inga’s Bar is owned by the designer Caron Callahan, and her husband the chef Sean Rembold who led the kitchens at Diner and Marlow & Sons. At Inga’s he, and his chef chef Tirzah Stashko, offer a menu that leans into his passion for the ingredients of the region and nods to classic dishes and his humble Midwestern roots.
Inga’s is a neighborhood tavern, but one with elevated food; what might have been called a gastro-pub in the days of the Spotted Pig. While it’s located in a charming cobblestone enclave in the fruit streets of Brooklyn Heights, it could be on a windswept corner of the Scottish Highlands, or in a tiny brick-paved alleyway from a neighborhood in Ted Lasso. It's instantly warm, like a steamy cuppa tea on a chilly winter day. There are small round closely-spaced bistro tables covered in craft paper, walls hung with a mix of modern and folk art, and a starburst tin ceiling overhead. Dishes are a collection of old mismatched China, and a long, inviting bar salvaged from the Victorian-style Grand Prospect Hall in South Park Slope is a welcome perch for reading, drinking, eating, chatting, and connecting. It’s a place for effortlessly staying too long and too late.
Jamie and I had dinner at Inga’s on a rainy night where the constant drizzle was just annoying enough to keep you wet, but not quite enough to justify an umbrella. I was slightly soggy when I arrived via CitiBike, but got warm pretty quickly with the help of Inga’s Manhattan, a gorgeous cocktail the color of liquid amber, served with one plump brandy-soaked cherry sunk right to the bottom of the tulip shaped glass. Jamie’s Negroni was a deep red color I’d have loved in a lip gloss, served in a heavy, wide cut crystal tumbler. These beautiful cocktails are the reason there’s such a crowd at the bar, snacking on their crisp and bracing giardiniera (skewers of pickled seasonal vegetables and olives), and croquettes fashioned from the makings of duck poutine. (Yes duck poutine croquettes. Not a typo.)
For dinner you’ll find a tidy little menu of dishes that are steeped in tradition. Take the Celery Victor, for instance. I’d never heard of this dish before. It’s a Caesar-ish salad that dates back to 1910, and was invented by Victor Hirtzler, head chef at San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel; he’s the same chef who is credited with inventing Crab Louie. The salad is made from chilled braised celery, tossed with anchovies and parmesan, and it’s quickly become the “it” dish. It topped nearly every table in the room at some point in the night. I also loved the brook trout, quite elegant and understated, like a string of pearls on a black dress; perfectly poached fish coated in a dill-forward beurre blanc so the fish is gloriously glossy, and punctuated with firm bursts of briny pink trout roe.
The Bitter Greens Salad was just terrific, a simple combination of ruffly chicories like castelfranco, traviso, and tardivo, tossed with radishes, soft herbs, and housemade rye bread croutons that are a sturdy match for the mustardy vinaigrette.
On such a cool, gray night, with the spitting rain tapping the windows facing the fall leaves changing colors on Hick Street, the Spicy Fisherman Stew was an easy choice. (Though we would not have been wrong to have the Mushroom Polenta with Manchego and Egg Yolk; the spectacular Pork Chop with Corn and Padron peppers; or the double-decker Cheeseburger, with crisp white onions, pickles, and mayo on a toasted soft bun.)
But back to that stew; loaded up with clams, mussels, and hunks of silky hake, it hits the spot. The tomato broth is nicely spicy, and almost too garlicky. But I’ll take it. We mopped up every last drop, and honestly the garlic was still coming off me the next day on my run. Can’t say I was upset about that, but be warned, it’s a well seasoned stew.
Oh, and one more thing. You must have the fries, hand cut, fried until well-done (no soggy ones in there), sprinkled with sea salt, and served with aioli and ketchup.
Dessert was the only disappointment. We had the Buttermilk Tart, which arrived on a little fluted dish you’d imagine pulling from an old cupboard at your grandparent’s house. But the tart crust was underdone, and sadly the buttermilk pie itself was way too sweet, no balance of tang which you kinda need. But if that’s the only issue with a restaurant that embraces you and feeds you and your soul so well, we’re good.
Inga’s is what we all need right now. It is a respite. It is a port in a storm. It is a neighborhood tavern that serves much more than very good food. It is a place to gather, to drink, to chat, to lean into each other, and remain close; no more distance.
Inga’s Bar is open Everyday at 5pm. Tables on @resy and walk-ins welcome! 66 Hicks Street, Brooklyn Heights.