Restaurant Review: Inga’s Bar in Brooklyn Heights

It’s late on a Sunday evening at Inga’s Bar in Brooklyn, and the dining room is growing quiet. As it does, seats at the bar, where I’m finishing dinner, start to fill with servers who have sent their last customers off into the night.

As they decompress over cocktails and wine, something unusual happens: They talk among themselves, very enthusiastically, about their favorite things on the menu. Several items come in for praise, but the consensus favorite seems to be a salad called celery Victor. Somebody orders one, and when it arrives the talk of its merits starts up again.

They can’t be kissing up to the chef, their boss Sean Rembold; he’s out of earshot at the far end of the bar. Are they doing this for me? I’ve already eaten a plate of the crispest giardiniera I can remember and followed that with fisherman’s stew, a bowl of hake, cockles and mussels in tomato broth so thick and spicy it could have been made into an excellent pasta arrabbiata. While my ideal fisherman’s stew probably contains more seafood, I am perfectly content, and clearly at the end of my meal.

The only explanation that makes any sense is that they mean it. And while the endorsement of paid workers normally has no place in a review, I’m telling you about this conversation because it illustrates something about Inga’s.

Salads at Inga’s, such as the celery Victor, are never an afterthought.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Located on a Brooklyn Heights corner, the place is divided into a barroom and a dining room, connected by a wide passage but separate enough that each has its own atmosphere. Many restaurants use their bar as a waiting room and for overflow seating. Inga’s has avoided this since opening its doors in March, and one result is that the bar is already a local hangout. (It probably took in some displaced loyalists from Jack the Horse Tavern, a long-running local favorite that closed in 2020.) Sit down with a book and you may be asked what you’re reading; order a celery salad and somebody will chime in with an opinion. The employees at shift’s end are just carrying on in the pattern set by the civilian drinkers.

They’re also right about the celery Victor. In its original form, devised at a San Francisco hotel more than 100 years ago, the salad consists of braised celery stalks in vinaigrette, garnished with anchovies and served cold. Perhaps sensing that this would be a little too celery-forward for modern diners, Mr. Rembold has brought other greens and leaves into the picture, along with shards of Parmesan and pickled mustard seeds. Salads at Inga’s are never an afterthought. Even the simple plate of tender lettuces and herbs could start a conversation.

Inga’s Bar does not serve bar food, really, despite the name and despite the cheeseburger on its menu — a very good and unpretentious one, on a soft toasted bun with white onions, crisp dill pickles, sweet bread-and-butter pickles and a stack of two pressed beef patties, each in its own shiny orange sheath of melted American cheese. You wouldn’t think it was out of place in the kind of tavern where mugs are kept in a freezer below the beer taps and the food is served in plastic baskets, unless you knew that the pickles are made on site. OK, the dark, from-scratch fries with freshly whisked mayonnaise might give the game away, too.

The dining room and barroom each have their own atmosphere.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York TimesThe chef Sean Rembold and his wife, Caron Callahan, took over a tavern that closed early in the pandemic.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Mr. Rembold’s heart lies in seasonal cooking that puts regional ingredients at the service of traditional dishes from France, Italy and the United States. Inga’s Bar excels at charcuterie. It makes a coarse-grained rustic pâté wrapped in bacon and serves it with a slab of cultured butter and a handful of bitter young mustard greens, as well as a satiny mortadella, dressed with brown butter and a frizzy mane of Microplaned Gouda, that outshines many Bolognese imports.

I would not say Mr. Rembold cooks comfort food, but a fair amount of it could be prescribed to treat the gnawing anxiety that Holly Golightly called the mean reds. There is polenta with chopped chives and roasted mushrooms; grated Comté and a warm egg yolk sit on top, waiting to be incorporated into the polenta. Every bite is different, but not in a way that will alarm anybody.

The Irish lamb stew is actually more like a pot-au-feu. It has a soothing light broth that you can sip between spoonfuls of tender braised shank, little Japanese turnips and velvet-soft leaves of kale. Under those leaves are more leaves — fresh mint, a classic pairing with lamb, of course, but almost the last thing you expect to find in Irish stew.

Honey is drizzled over the apple butter cake.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

It is, though, the kind of thoughtful contribution to an older idea that Brooklyn diners used to expect from Mr. Rembold back when he was something of a Johnny Appleseed figure in the local food scene. Over the years, he worked as the chef of Diner, Marlow & Sons and Reynard (all in Williamsburg and all owned by the same group), along the way training younger cooks in a nose-to-tail, make-it-yourself philosophy that was still new to Brooklyn when he began practicing it.

After leaving Reynard about five years ago (it later closed) Mr. Rembold did not run another restaurant kitchen until the Jack the Horse space went on the market. It had pressed-tin ceilings and wood floors. He and the designer Caron Callahan, his partner in marriage and in the business, hung vintage paintings and drawings on the walls, and rounded up grandma silverware and plates with floral patterns. The effect is something like a tea salon where bohemians of the last century might have fed on cake and existentialism.

In fact, the best of Inga’s desserts is a cake with a low, rich, yellow center and a high, puffy lip at the edge. It reminded me of a gâteau Breton. I should have looked to the Midwest instead, because it is much more closely related to the St. Louis delicacy known as gooey butter cake. Spiced syrup has been spooned over it and there are poached apples on the side, and as I ate it all the day’s worries seemed to have moved away to some other city. Life lately has become an endless existentialist drama, but at least we still have cake.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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