By all appearances, Wild Horse Tavern should be a drinks-focused space with a token menu.
The new Upper East Side restaurant and bar, which just opened at 1629 Second Ave. last week, looks like a classic pub, with Dutch doors swinging open onto the street. The long bar stocks 12 beers on tap, and the interior is all dark woods and photos of galloping horses and music icons (the name of the restaurant comes from a Rolling Stones song). There’s a rock ‘n’ roll theme to the cocktails, with plans for live bands to play the real thing in the back of the house soon.
But then the menus arrive, and the influence of chef Max Renny is immediately clear. Mixed among more traditional appetizers like fries and wings are spiced lamb ribs; the entrees include steak frites and beer mussels — served with a fresh pretzel for dipping — but also a Vietnamese Dip sandwich with beef pho. The Church Street Tavern crew may have laid the foundation, but Wild Horse Tavern has its own identity.
Renny “made his bones” at the West Village’s Sumile Sushi, a two-star Japanese-French restaurant, then worked with Southeast Asian ingredients at Fatty ‘Cue and Fatty Crab.
“My style tends to have a lot of those influences: mixing lighter flavors with French techniques, using a lot of fresh herbs, brazes and brines. I like to smoke a lot — all those things add a nice depth of flavor to the food I like to do,” he says.
The best example, and a totally unexpected take on a classic dish, is the BBQ Tete de Cochon. Technically, the menu’s description of it as a pulled pork sandwich is correct, but Renny more accurately describes it as “a riff on Carolina-style chopped barbecue.”
“We take a whole pig’s head, brine it for almost a week and braise it slowly,” explains Renny. “Once we cook it all the way, we pull everything off except for the eyes, so you have chunks of meat, chunks of fat, crispy chunks of skin.”
The sauce is where things really go in their own direction. A play on vinegar-barbecue sauce, it basically has every component that a curry would have except lemongrass: red chilies, garlic, galangal (a ginger relative), fish sauce and lime juice. A traditional coleslaw heavy on the fresh herbs goes on top.
“All those flavors balance that really heavy pork head,” Renny says.
Besides Renny’s Asian influences, Wild Horse Tavern also makes use of its neighbors’ expertise. The Upper East Side used to be the heart of NYC’s Eastern European community, but as it shrank, so did its specialty food shops. What remains has found its way onto the menu: meats from Ottomanelli Bros., smoked products from Schaller & Weber, aged cheddar and potato buns from Orwasher’s Bakery.
“A lot of the heritage and background of the neighborhood has fallen by the wayside, and isn’t really noticed by people as much as it should be,” says Renny. “I like to bring that into the restaurant.”