When Odd Duck opened to buzz and critical acclaim in 2012, drawing favorable comparisons to Senora Small Plates herself, La Merenda, it typified a fully shifted caloric paradigm. The restaurant was right on the heels of Braise and the Noble, and soon after came Duck-ian reduxes like Wolf Peach, Lazy Susan, and every new spot in Walker’s Point. Recently, the former Cafe Perrin reopened as Nourri (5901 W. Vliet St., 414-727-0860), complete with new ownership, some fresh coats of paint, and a general of-the-times reboot. It’s the latest installment indicating Washington Heights is having its small-batch, fetishistic moment: there’s Story Hill BKC; Valentine Roasters; and coming soon, the from-Portland pizzeria Wy’East. (Though for our money, all the neighborhood needs to be destination-worthy is one McBob’s.)
At Nourri, chef Christian Schroeder leads the foray. And though he’s on a bit of a cold streak—having led the kitchen for the now-defunct small plate experiment at Von Trier, and directed operations at the indefinitely closed Prodigal Gastropub—we headed west for the latest entry in the world of fancy-ish food.
The space: Get past the Vliet Street construction, and it looks like a corner joint you’d stumble upon in residential, uptown New Orleans. In what was probably a one-time bungalow, you’ll find a cozy spot, unassuming, begging for neighborhood “regulars,” a part of a modest commercial cluster across the street from the Times Cinema and miles removed from the normal mainstream of hip-ish restaurateur-ing.
It feels refreshing and warm in its red-hued humility, with 12 simple tables; a welcoming, room-dominating bar; and no-big-deal spattered paint art. There’s also weekend brunch, daily lunch, and rumors of forthcoming live music. It’s already rather endearing, making you wish you were part of the ’hood, making you feel “in the know,” making you want it to succeed.
The service: Home-y, approaching grandmotherly. At one point we found ourselves being told a blood orange was a “fruit,” and upon being seated were given a rundown of available soft drinks and told the status of the thermostat. A pat on the head for a clean plate seemed imminent. Intentionally or not, it was a slick antidote to all the Portlandia-ish food trappings of 2015, where you’re expected to know what “madeira” and “pickled hedgehogs” mean. Really, why complain somebody is happy to have us, to help, and was rather well-versed despite a one-day-old menu? A bit of over-explanation is no big deal. And as for that thermostat: the night was colder than a witch’s tenderloin.
Milwaukee Record’s food: Upon initial scan, we were struck by terms that seemed culled from the crux of the Odd Duck handbook: short ribs, sea scallops, duck confit, bulgogi, pork cheeks, dates, drinks with unexpected fruit (persimmon Brandy Old Fashioned?), a reliance on Madison’s Underground Meats. Then there was the charcuterie selections themselves, sided with whole grain mustard on a wooden chopping block. Okay, maybe that’s everywhere these days, but who else is slinging ’nduja alongside fruity preserves and crusty bread?
Either way, we pushed on, even ignoring the fact that $18 seemed an absurd sum to ask for a cheese or meat plate. Everything worked, especially the said ’nduja that came in spicy, soft rings; the not-too-intense hog jowl pate; a plentitude of zingy soppressata slices; nearly spreadable Carr Valley feta; something from the cheddar family called Chandoka; Molotov cocktail-like bursting pickled apples; and neat char marks on soft bread. But a la carte may have been more reasonable.
Four bucks per ball raised similar price concerns, but there was nothing disagreeable about the wild boar meatballs ($12.50). Creamed polenta ran together with a pecorino fonduta to lay a velvety bed for three mid-sized gamey spheres. Always-right San Marzano tomatoes and a light touch of bright parsley pesto set off the heartiness.
Similarly, waffles ($13) lay a platform for braised grass fed beef short ribs. Turns out that “madeira” is a type of Portuguese fortified wine; in brown reduction form it proved a worthy, buttery flavor blood for the whole-wheat-ish waffle and cut-with-a-fork meat. It’s Nourri’s own take on that now ubiquitous upscale homage to the soul food classic chicken and waffles. Pickled cherry compote floated around for additional sweet breakfast-ness. While the accompanying country fried sweetbread was not much more than a mushy fried ambiguity—an unfortunate odd man out, dangerous in its offal-ness—it could turn less bold diners away from an otherwise solid plate.
The Tempura duck egg ($15) wasn’t so easy to summarize. There was supposedly a Berkshire pork belly pancake underneath the scotch-egg like oval. But there was also so much happening it was hard to even tell: a beech mushroom was unappealing in appearance and overpowering in fungal essence, the pork blood orange broth (not “pork-blood” as it is stated, but pork and blood orange broth) was so strong that it felt like somebody had spilled liquid smoke in the sauce pan. Fried cilantro was interesting but easy to overlook. Luckily there was kimchi, and the fermented stuff’s unique ability to bring everything more or less together in nostril flare.
The dish took us back to a time when we thought Von Trier flatbreads were a bit overdone. And maybe it’s true that many small plates about town could adhere to that old style adage: get all the way ready, look in the mirror, and remove one thing. In other words, if it’s a big deal to source local eggs, let said eggs be a big deal. Don’t beat us over the head with kitchen skills and endless running foodist terminology worthy of Saveur, or Proust. In other words, why do Monkfish cheeks ($15), an already exotic item, need six sophisticated components to boot?
Afterwards, a gelatinous panna cotta ($7), with blackberry and hunks of dark cocoa, felt like the palate equivalent of General Mitchell’s “Recombobulation Area.” And while a dud cup of coffee ($2.50) sent us off into the frigid night, it was an overriding taste of pleasant ambition that would mark the meal.
The verdict: Odd Duck West, at least in aspiration and spirit-animal form. Still, maximum potential for Nourri might come from digesting its influences, cooking them down, straining, and finding a way to make them all its own.