Chalk Food + Wine is the second Jean-Robert Restaurant Group endeavor on Greenup Street in Covington. Situated just two doors up from Greenup Café in the space formerly occupied by Pho Paris, it shares the informal, neighborhood style that I love.
My first visit to Chalk was during Restaurant Week. It was incredibly busy, as expected, and we waited at least half an hour after our reservation to be seated. But the food was quite good -- flavorful and creative -- and the presentations were lovely. I had a vegetable ravioli appetizer, an amazing little lamb chop and a fanciful but delicious cupcake for dessert, all for $25.08, so I left impressed and was looking forward to returning.
My second visit, of course, was to try the standard menu. Actually, I shouldn't say "standard," because there's nothing standard about this menu. With white lettering on black paper (like a chalkboard, of course) it's divided into four sections: start, hand food, eat us and friends, which translate roughly to appetizers, sandwiches, entrées and side dishes. Takes a little explaining.
The Web site calls the menu kitschy and approachable. But with only the briefest explanation/description of each dish, ordering is a very server-intensive experience. Caution: While servers might be bored or jaded with the food descriptions, the guests are not. When I asked about the "Ham" under "hand food," the response was "It's a ham sandwich." Umm, I guessed that -- I was hoping you could tell me why I'd want to try it, yes?
Specials are based on fresh, local ingredients.
It was fun to try fiddlehead ferns ($7) sautéed in butter with shallots. The taste was similar to early spring asparagus, with a texture a little like okra. We also tried the arugula salad ($9) with tiny little new leaves of greens and croutons made from breaded, fried slices of edam cheese. I've had this with goat cheese before, but the nutty Edam accented with walnut oil was particularly good.
I knew from our first visit that some of the dishes were not what you'd expect. "Barbecued chicken" turned out to be a tender puff of pastry surrounding shredded chicken. This time the "short 'n puff" ($8) was quite similar: a small turnover filled with flavorful beef, a slight bit of boursin cheese and onion. The best thing about this dish is the intensity of flavor: While there's not a lot of beef, the short ribs have been reduced to their essence, and the result is small but mighty.
The calamari ($8) arrived in two interesting presentations: grilled on a skewer and minced into a "calamari cake" with scallion and celery, served with a tangy homemade ketchup cocktail sauce that was sweet and smooth.
Chicken Pot Pie ($8) is listed as a starter, even though the portion is big compared to the other appetizers. It's baked in a crock, topped with puff pastry that hangs over the edge like the classic presentation of French onion soup. I liked it more than anyone else, and I am not a chicken lover -- the consensus was that it was heavy on the rosemary.
Heavy beer batter made the caramelized beer onions ($5) more like fritters than like onion rings.
From the "hand" category, we tried the duck sloppy joe ($9), a rich pile of shredded duck served on a nice brioche roll. Red cabbage slaw that was served on the sandwich would have been better, and less overpowering, on the side.
Catfish ($15) with grits and white cheddar was presented two ways: a crisp, cornmeal-dusted filet and as a catfish hushpuppy served on mild white grits. The "drunken salmon" ($16) was the favorite of the night. Cooked just medium rare, it was served with pureed white beans and a lovely wine reduction.
Pork belly with lentils and walnuts ($18), though delicious, was so intensely rich that I'd suggest a Lipitor chaser. The turkey breast ($16) was unapologetically solid turkey, with a wonderful accompaniment of mushroom spoonbread topped with dried cranberries.
We ordered a bottle of Luzon Monastrell Syrah ($24) to share at the table from a well-chosen, un-intimidating wine list.
Our server recommended pecan bars ($8) that were chocolatey and nutty like derby pie, with cream cheese ice cream that was a hit.
After our second visit, Chalk has still not completely won my heart. There were high points, but even on a relatively quiet night we again waited 30 minutes on a 7:30 reservation. We asked if it was unusually busy, and our server assured us that, no, this was a typical crowd. Hmm.
They brought us an order of French fries with blue cheese dip sauce ($4.50) while we waited but didn't buy our drinks.
Things I like about Chalk: the location, the sophistication of a big-city bistro, prices are reasonable, the staff is convivial, the acoustics are good for conversation and presentations are pretty but not pretentious.
But Jean-Robert has set his own bar high, even with Twist, the Bistro and Greenup Café. Chalk might need a little tough love to make its scheduling smoother, its food balance a little crisper and its staff really shine. After dinner, when we were the last table left in the back room, I got the distinct impression that they were rushing us to leave more than we'd rushed them to seat us.
Chalk Food + Wine
Go: 318 Greenup St., Covington
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday.
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty