Dear Inga, an Eastern European/Georgian restaurant, has moved into the space that housed the much troubled Farina. Chef David Golovin (Spruce, Nopa, Rubicon) named the restaurant for his grandmother. With Chef Ravi Kapur (Liholiho Yacht Club), Chef Golovin’s focus here is elevated, yet rustic, babushka comfort food. It blends modern touches with old techniques of fermentation and smoke, with seemingly meticulous attention to detail. After being open only five weeks, people were already raving about it.
We arrived a bit early for our reservation and they tried to seat us by the bathroom. I told them I’d rather wait for the chef’s counter seating I’d reserved, and 20 minutes later, we were seated. I’ve read complaints that early on the FOH staff was cold and unfriendly, but tonight all were sweet, apologetic, and very accommodating. The wait allowed me enough time to try one of their much-touted cocktails at the counter: The Sliver features Clear Creek Slivovitz (a plum brandy), Gran Classico, Bonal, Dolin Dry Vermouth. Much like an herbal martini; I was well pleased.
Once we were seated, they comped us a starter (which they really didn’t need to do) — spinach dip with walnut butter and za’atar, served with house-made rye bread and seeded crackers.
First off, I won’t keep saying “housemade” — just about everything is made in-house here. The spinach was tasty, topped with za’atar, but no one flavor stood out. I really wanted to taste the walnut butter. The seeded crackers were crisp and a good, salty conveyance, better than the rather bland rye bread.
For our first requested starter, we had the liptauer cheese.
Liptauer is a Slovenian cheese spread, made with cheese, butter, and sweet paprika. Here, it came replete with herbs and seeds, grilled eggplant, and a walnut-dill pesto. The opposite of the first dip, this dish was packed with flavor and textures. We ate it up with puffy, chewy, house-made langos.
Freshly made, hot and delicious, langos are a Hungarian fry bread. A delight! I loved that we were already deep into Eastern Europe, and these two were probably my favorite dishes of the night.
Next we split a single bratwurst sausage with sauerkraut and mustard.
Supposedly, Chef Golovin is known for his way with sausages. While it was good, and we both love sausages, it really was just a bratwurst sausage. There was nothing to distinguish it from many others we’ve had. I did enjoy the sauerkraut.
We then split the pork and beef stuffed cabbage.
The cabbage roll came in a bath of fermented peppers and a cultured cream. While I loved the texture of the meat, I found the dish a tad underseasoned. But the BF loved this, and said he’d come back just for it and the langos.
Our final order (oof!) was the scarlet runner bean croquettes.
The croquettes tasted almost identical to falafel, served with a sour plum sauce and a cultured cream aioli; also, bits of pickled runner beans and other veggies. Good, and I loved the aioli, but I don’t need to order this again.
I had many feels about this dinner. I understand that this is coming from Chef Golovin’s heart, and is very personal to him. And perhaps you have to have an affinity for this type of food, or a tie to it from your childhood, to really appreciate it. It was all quite tasty but… nothing made either of us swoon. The question is, is comfort food supposed to make you swoon?
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My second cocktail was a carrot eau de vie and a very wheaty vodka blend that a server recommended (which I no longer see on the menu), but was less interesting than it sounded. Dear Inga also offers half-pours of wine, which I ADORE. We had three half-glasses: one, a Georgian amber wine (Mtsvane, from Manavi) that was cloudy and almost cider-like, a Hungarian white (Furmint, Birtok, Tokaj) that was rather dull, and a Georgian red (Saperavi, Kakheti) that had an unusual funk to it.
As has been the case of late, our second visit was much, much better. We ordered very simply this time, starting off with a salad.
How often does one get to rhapsodize about a salad? Endive, in a paprika vinaigrette, with fermented Caroselli squash, a tarragon emulsion, walnuts, and bits of luscious Alp blossom cheese. Wow. While it might look a bit busy, everything worked together like a dream, and yet each flavor was distinct: Bright and smoky, creamy and crunchy… just beautiful. The walnuts themselves tasted amazingly fresh. At first I was sorry there wasn’t more cheese, as I’d read about the lovely flowers and herbs that coat this cow’s milk cheese, but then I realized it wouldn’t have been as balanced. Swoon-worthy.
For his main, the BF ordered one of Dear Inga’s specialties: the smoked NY strip steak.
With carrots and the most amazing cabbage ever – I don’t know what they did to it, but it was smoky and buttery, with just the right sweetness. The steak had a texture not unlike the best-smoked brisket – incredibly tender, the smokiness just perfect The rye bread skordalia and, I believe, a beef reduction, tied it all together. That cabbage though… the BF said he almost preferred it to the steak! High praise.
I had the lamb three ways.
Lamb boudin, braised lamb neck, and roasted lamb leg, with crispy turnips, acorn squash, and a lovely parsley, tarragon, and mint vinaigrette underneath it all. All three lamb preparations were exquisite, each so different from the other, but the sausage especially stood out. I’d never had a boudin made with lamb; Chef Golovin deserves his sausage accolades after all. This dish was truly big enough to share, and we brought home most of the braised lamb.
Buoyed by the success of our dinner, we saved room for dessert for a change.
Chocolate cake with fig jam, fig cream, and sliced pears. Unfortunately, dessert did not wow. Disappointingly, I discerned no fig at all, and the cake was a little dense. The dish wasn’t actively offensive, just neither here nor there.
This evening, I had the Plavac Mali, a Croatian red wine, and the BF had a Pilsner that tasted like Budweiser to me (which stands to reason, as the original Bud is Czech), but he liked it.
There’s quite lot to intrigue here, drink-wise, and I’d also now love to try the smoked sturgeon, the chicken and smoked pork jowl meatballs, the Manila clams, and the sea bass. And I’d love to see how Chef Golovin changes his menu up (while hopefully keeping some of the crowd-pleasers). Dear Inga is perhaps a special occasion restaurant, as it is rather dear. But I am happy to say it indeed lives up to the hype.
3560 18th St. (between Valencia and Guerrero)