- Ash Daniel
- Grilled baby octopus with onions and asparagus is a terrific dish at The Magpie, but isn’t always on the gastropub’s changing menu.
One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl, and four for a boy; five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told.
So goes the nursery rhyme about the magpie, and the fortunes that may befall you depending on how many of the birds you happen to see. Highly intelligent and the subject of much superstition in the United Kingdom, the magpie is known for choosing a mate for life, perhaps explaining why spotting one alone is considered a bad omen. It makes for a provocative mascot — and one that seems to suit the eponymous gastro-pub in the Carver neighborhood. But does the rhyme describe the restaurant?
1. Sorrow. About the size of a sitting room and with seats for no more than a couple of dozen diners, what the space at the corner of West Leigh and Norton lacks in dimension it makes up for in character. With a quirky speakeasy-meets-hipster cafe vibe, the Magpie feels comfortable but not crowded; diminutive but substantial. Red tufted banquettes line the walls, along with vintage prints of the infamous birds and a set of antelope antlers. Heavy iron lights hang above the L-shaped bar, and deep magenta drapes frame the windows. The menu is long on game, grilled meats and fried things. Sorrowful? No. Serious? Yes.
2. Joy. Along with the dark wood and heavy fabric, there’s plenty of charm at work. The soundtrack on a recent evening includes the Beatles, the Cure, Velvet Underground and Billy Idol. The staff is chatty and convivial — if a little slow at times. While the food is ambitious, with appetizers such as corn dog lobster tail, this isn’t a kitchen taking itself too seriously. Even if eating breaded, deep-fried lobster feels a little like drinking Dom Pérignon mixed with ginger ale, no matter. The folks in the back and the front of the house are having fun, and they want you to, too.
3. A Girl. Tiffany Gellner is the gal half of the couple that owns and operates the Magpie, and is usually stationed behind the bar, mixing libations and keeping an eye on things. Her cocktail offerings include the delightful — and addictive — “here comes the sun,” which she describes as a skinny girl margarita, and the potent Magpie muddle, which will be enjoyed by those who like bourbon on the rocks. The wine list is a quirky mix, heavy on a few varietals but with some interesting blends and nice surprises.
4. A Boy. A former executive chef at Stronghill Dining Company, Owen Lane is Gellner’s fiance and the man in the kitchen. He clearly loves meat and generally knows what to do with it, but also is quite skillful with seafood. His smoked dishes, proteins and vegetables alike are especially outstanding, as is the delicate amuse bouche; a spoonful of duck confit and poblano cream on corn cake makes the perfect bite. A few dishes never take flight. The antelope, a surprisingly unflavorful novelty, is overpriced at $28. The coffee cake is boring, but somewhat rescued by espresso cream.
5. Silver. They aren’t culinary gold, but these dishes are worthy of an honorable mention. The fish of the day, salmon, is perfectly seared with a crisp, salty crust, served in a buttery saffron broth with tender escargot. The gnocchi that shares the plate is unfortunately dense. The Berkshire pork could use more seasoning but is well cooked and accompanied by tasty mashed yucca and smoked tomatoes.
6. Gold. A handful of Lane’s offerings are pure heaven. House-made venison sausage melts in the mouth. Duck paupiette — sliced duck breast wrapped with cream cheese, poblano pepper and bacon — is savory and succulent and perfectly balanced with champagne vinaigrette. The grilled baby octopus must be tried. It’s smoky and meaty, with delicious assistance from sweet onions and asparagus. Only the duck cracklings seem expendable.
7. A Secret Never to be Told. The neighborhood is far from being a well-established dining destination, and the menu is rich in more ways than one — even if each delectable bite is worth every penny. Whether or not the Magpie and its eclectic neighborhood make a lifelong union, the talented pair behind the place certainly has built a welcoming nest. S
The Magpie ($$$)
1301 W. Leigh St.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.