When we last saw this space, it was Elizabeth, a train wreck of a restaurant that endured a series of chef shuffles, and finally closed in early 2011. Its one redeeming feature was a lovely back garden with a retractable roof that annoyed the neighbors. To get community board approval, the chef had to agree not to use it. Musket Room has turned out so beautifully that it hardly matters.
Chef–Owner Matt Lambert came out of the stable of restaurants owned by the design firm AvroKO (Public, Saxon + Parole, and the now-closed Double Crown). He learned his lessons well. Musket Room feels just like an AvroKO spot, with its exposed bulbs, low lighting, reclaimed wood, and whitewashed brick/plaster walls. Seating is stylish and comfortable. A stately indoor cherry blossom tree (or what looks like one) anchors the bar, which has cute little study lights plugged in every few feet.
Those design elements have been repeated in an endless number of restaurants, but I don’t remember very many that got them so right. The space strikes the right balance between casual and upscale. The sound track is soft rock, played at an unobtrusive volume. The space feels immediately comfortable.
The restaurant is named for the Musket Wars, a 35-year conflict fought 200 years ago between the Māori tribes of New Zealand, the chef’s homeland. A big musket hangs over the bar, and there are little bits of musket imagery throughout the restaurant.
New Zealand inspires the food, as well, but I fear the chef may be asking more of the neighborhood than his neighbors are prepared to give. Entrées hover at the $30 mark, and there are also tasting menus at $75 (five courses) and $115 (nine). The chef needs to earn the right to charge those prices; I’m not sure he can get away with them, right out of the gate.
The cuisine reminds me of the chef’s alma mater, Public, which after two visits never really persuaded me that it deserved its accolades. It’s technically skilled cooking that you don’t mind at the time, but don’t remember for very long afterward.
We had the five-course menu; click on the image, above left, for a larger picture. The chef is obviously capable, but two out of five courses (the quail, the cod) were slightly disappointing. After one visit, I won’t try to guess whether they’re typical of his work.
The bread service is a highlight. The server offers you a choice of rye, sourdough, or a bacon–cheddar brioche, which is baked to order and comes out several minutes later. If you want another, they’ll bake another. The butter is house-made too, served with speckles of wood salt from New Zealand, but in a portion so small you would think it’s caviar.
Heirloom gazpacho (above left) with herbs from the back garden offered a bracing start to the meal. The chef likes to plate little dots of food at the edge of the plate, as you see in this dish and a number of others.
Chilled smoked scallops (above right) come with cucumber, black garlic, pears, and sea beans. They come to the table covered in a cloche: the chef removes it, and a cloud of heady smoke escapes.
Quail (above left), with the claw clearly visible at the right edge of the plate, tasted vaguely of barbecue, but it was an insubstantial dish, gone in a few bites.
Pan-seared Chatham cod (above right) was one of the prettier plates, served with peas, pickled mussels, and crabmeat, but all of those ingredients aded up to a curiously flat dish.
The dessert program is impressive for such a small place. So-called “Scrambled Eggs” on toast (above left) was actually a vanilla custard. A chocolate torte (above right), with black mint ice cream and mascarpone, was very good.
The bill is presented with two macarons in a stiff cardboard box; on your way out, the staff gives you another little box of cookies to take home.
The servers are doting and polite, to an extent that one message board poster actually found annoying. We thought the exact opposite, but the comment underscores the difficulty facing a restaurant in this neighborhood that actually wants to provide upscale service in a casual room.
We liked the Musket Room, but it remains to be seen whether this type of restaurant, at its price point, will secure a following without making some compromises.
The Musket Room (265 Elizabeth Street, south of Houston Street, NoLIta)
Food: Modern New Zealand-ish
Service: Doting, polite, and upscale
Ambiance: A warm, comfortable, fairly casual room