New York is a city of contradictions. On the one hand, there is kale. But it takes both hands to raise a big and greasy grilled-cheese sandwich that starts falling apart the moment you try to pick it up.
Which brings us to The Pullman Kitchen, on Second Avenue near 51st Street. Capitalizing on a trend that is breaking out across New York, this bustling spot specializes in very cheesy grilled sandwiches. All of the sandwich options bear thick layers of cheese made molten on a griddle. The bread may appear merely toasted, but the buttery sheen left on your fingertips after contact with the bread proves otherwise.
To complete this Atkins nightmare, order one of the spiked milkshakes.
To be fair, kale actually plays a starring role in three menu items — a sandwich, a salad and a side dish. But the operative concept here is comfort food, not good-for-you food. Most of the sandwiches are, in fact, bursting with juice, a euphemism for what drips out of fatty food when it is cooked. When settling in with one of these creations, be sure to lean over the table or you risk a major dry-cleaning bill.
In keeping with another curious trend, The Pullman Kitchen’s decor evokes a Depression-era country kitchen. The tin chairs sport badly worn paint jobs and the tables are made of thick slabs of rough-cut pine. Your lunch is served on a small enamelware tray rather than on a plate, water comes in mason jars, and everything is accompanied by ketchup.
Of the sandwiches I tried, my favorite was the Little Italy ($11.95), which teamed a bold fennel sausage with a blanket of mozzarella on sourdough, as limp spinach and tangy sliced peppers played the role of the green group. The combination was a pleasing mix of contrasting flavors and textures ranging from melty to chewy to crunchy.
The Oxtail ($14.95), immersing long-stewed oxtail in a pool of Cheddar with thin slices of sweet pickle and pickled onion, was so juicy that it quickly overwhelmed its grilled sourdough bread, making this dish a challenge to consume before it disintegrated.
The Chicken and Waffles ($12.95) sandwich needed tweaking. Who doesn’t love fried chicken, never mind waffles? Plus, the combo’s a tradition: one food historian traces the dish to Pennsylvania Dutch country in the 1600s. But sandwiching fried chicken between maple-syrup-soaked waffles — under a blanket of cheese! — may not be such a good idea.
The result was already pretty limp when it arrived at the table, and the combined flavors of the soggy waffle and the syrup canceled out the boneless, buttermilk-fried chicken breast, leaving a layer of melted pepper-jack cheese as the dominant flavor. Even the chicken, while crispy and light, lacked oomph. The breast, already the least flavorful part of the bird, was barely seasoned.
All sandwiches come with an old-fashioned pickle spear and your choice of waffle fries or fingerling potatoes. The fries were bland and listless when I tried them; extra salt did not help. The fingerling potatoes, served sliced and roasted, were better, seasoned with herbs and perhaps a touch of garlic and offering a bit of crunch.
For an extra $3.95, you can substitute a side of “sweet potater tots,” dense, yammy, deep-fried pellets with a crusty exterior. Definitely worth the extra calories.
For those on dairy-free diets, choices include a couple of salads and a handful of appetizers that could double as bar snacks, such as sweet-potato pancakes ($7.95) and a “Low Country Picnic” ($9.95) of fried green tomatoes, cheese dip, pickled okra and cornbread. The house-made tomato soup ($4.95), with bright green pureed basil slicing through its creamy red surface, was thick and delicious.
If you’re idle in the afternoon, The Pullman Kitchen offers an attractive happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, with draft beers, wines by the glass and a selection of appetizers at $5 each.
Like just about everywhere these days, the restaurant promotes its reliance on local provisions and craft beers. This is, of course, all for the good, but the kitchen should be bolder in its choice of cheeses, which were on the timid side.
Cocktails, by contrast, are imaginative. But about those milkshakes: Don’t try the steep stairs to the basement bathrooms if you’ve had one too many.
The Pullman Kitchen is open Sunday through Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to midnight. It is located at 959 Second Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. (212) 888-7404.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.