Think "farmer" and undoubtedly the image of a rigid man holding a pitchfork standing next to a dour younger woman in front of a small wooden house pops up. Arguably, Grant Wood's "American Gothic" is one of the most recognizable paintings of the last millennium. This American painting has come to symbolize the country's farm community — although, when it was first painted in 1930 for an art contest, one Iowan reportedly threatened the artist with an involuntary ear removal for his scurrilous depiction of local farmers.
Today, "American Gothic" is as intrinsic a part of popular American culture, and as frequently parodied, as, say, meatloaf and mac and cheese. Last November, MAP Management, owners of 5Church, opened the 104-seat Nan and Byron's, named after the models used by Wood for "American Gothic." Nan was Wood's sister, Byron his dentist.
The interior of Nan and Byron's is what one might expect. Reclaimed barn wood, mason jars and Edison light bulbs seem to be shorthand for rustic and are used here separately and in various combinations. Agricultural hand tools are the front door handles; less rustic is the valet service in the parking lot. The dining rooms, replete with antique furnishings and cushy banquettes, still have the old Vinnie's Sardine configuration, with a long, presumably load-bearing wall precluding a larger open space.
With this latest venture, chef Jamie Lynch circles the menu wagon and returns to accessible, unadorned foods or, as co-owner Patrick Whalen notes, "Foods that are comforting." Burgers? Check. Spaghetti and meatballs? Sure. Deviled eggs? You bet. And corn. Nan and Bryon, after all, were residents of Iowa, and anyone who has driven I-80 knows Iowa is corn.
So even if in farm market time the corn season is a ways off, the menu is spotted with corn: complimentary popcorn is shuttled to your table; roasted corn adds some sweet to the arugula salad; corn dots the lamb stew; and sautéed corn is offered as a side dish.
Starters are meant to be shared and have names like Train Wreck (french fries loaded with chili, poblano cheese and Sriracha ranch). The lightest of these is the chilled shrimp slathered with a not-so-classic, but nonetheless flavorful, remoulade. And while the Kitchen Sink Salad may not sound creative, the mellow peppadew peppers and crispy potato chips meld nicely with the greens.
Nothing spells out old barnyard standards as does a roasted chicken; however, here's the rub — or lack thereof. When a chef lists Peruvian spices on a chicken dish, in this case an unspectacular chicken dish, I'm expecting ají, the bright orange pepper ubiquitous in Peruvian cuisine. Or perhaps some of the native herbs I enjoyed last summer while in Peru, like huacatay, a minty herb essential to meat marinades; or chincho; or even the aromatic muña from the Andes. But I was told that the Peruvian spice on this chicken dish was cumin. Not only is cumin not indigenous to Peru, but cumin (from the Mediterranean) is international and not the spice essential to make any dish, sauce or marinade Peruvian. I was puzzled. I still am.
On the other hand — and much better — is the plainspoken meatloaf, kicked up with a dollop of Sriracha ketchup. Among the side-dish trimmings are the picture-perfect, crunchy sweet pickles and the crispy mojito fries dusted with an echo of lime. A kid-friendly mellow cheese sauce embraces the corkscrew pasta in this kitchen's rendition of mac and cheese. Desserts are compulsively edible, and the blessedly simple apple and cranberry cobbler is first rate.
Specialty cocktails are fairly simple. To be honest, I was expecting more of a stretch, but you gotta love a guy (Mark Childers, in this case) who puts G'night Moon on his list — even if not served in a great green room — and Corn on the Collins, with a citrusy profile that pairs well with many of the dishes.
So, you can distract yourself with cocktails and conversation and speculate why the porter on the beer list is from Triple C and the IPA is from NoDa Brewing and not vice versa. All the while, in the grand tradition of a neighborhood joint, the service team works to make you feel at home, offering useful suggestions instead of their autobiographies. And that, in itself, is entirely comforting.