Maysville, Your New Kentucky Home

Long rows of glowing brown spirits. Men in jackets clinking scotch glasses over a table of steaks. Maysville is a sharp whiskey-centric bar, but it’s no gentlemen’s club. There are plenty of women here, too, in shift dresses and stockings, jeans, and wool sweaters, plonking ice into Tennessee whiskey and rye, or sipping sweet, cold Sazeracs.

Maysville is named for a port town in Kentucky where America’s bourbon distillers sent their extra barrels to be sold along the Ohio River. If not exactly the birthplace of bourbon (liquor history and marketing mythology get tangled up), it was crucial to the spirit’s development. Now it’s also a good spot in the Flatiron district to sip corn juice—including Old Pogue, which brought production back to the town of Maysville just last year when it began distilling for the first time since Prohibition.

Kyle Knall, a young chef from Birmingham, Alabama, runs the kitchen and doesn’t waste time on the twee, lardy Southern food of our collective imagination—no mason jars, no pies on gingham. Knall came up under Frank Stitt, then went to work for Michael Anthony: This is modern, refined, Southern-inspired cooking via Gramercy Tavern. Knall has Anthony’s reverence for local vegetables, always accompanying moderate portions of meat with several kinds of beans, greens, mushrooms, and tubers, and often pickling whatever is growing at the moment to elevate and brighten a dish.

The kitchen’s excellent pork-and-shrimp sausage ($21), gently smoked and served on a bed of red rice slick with duck liver and collard greens, could go dark and heavy. Instead, it’s lit up with red wine vinegar and jalapeño pickling juice. (Although a hungry diner might complain that, for its small size, the dish is misplaced in the entrée section.) A ceramic bowl of soft, good grits ($12) under a light duck broth is another standout, arranged with duck confit, crisp pom-poms of hen of the woods, and an egg so soft it can barely keep it together. Wee hay-roasted oysters ($13), which are shucked and presented in fine form, are clean and vinegary. What a delight to eat roasted oysters that actually taste of oysters—not butter! It means other flavors shine through, too, like salsify and smoked hay.

There is a trout ($24), silver and gleaming with a tiny monster jaw, served with a few charred onion slices and pickled mushrooms. Its skin is crisp, its flesh sweet and pink. Like many of the dishes at Maysville, the trout’s smoke is a delicate accessory, a dab of perfume, and it never obliterates. Knall uses a proper large smoker for whole birds, pork shoulders, and other big cuts, but a small box smoker to quietly get the flavor across to the fish, a technique he picked up in Anthony’s kitchen.

You’ll want to order some appetizers, too, like the fine brussels sprout salad ($12) in just enough lemon and buttermilk dressing, dotted with a few small cubes of pig ear gone melty inside. Or the wrinkly, charred root vegetables with a thin cloud of goat cheese and chewy barley ($13), topped with sunflower seeds suspended in caramelized sugar. On a recent evening, that brittle appeared a second time with a slice of foie gras torchon. This time, it was perhaps less welcome: Too much sharing of ingredients among dishes and they can start to look alike and weaken, like incestuous aristocrats.

Although the small menu could be reconfigured a bit to better reflect portion size and avoid any repetition, Maysville is a restaurant to visit and enjoy immediately. Knall is a partner here with the whiskey-loving Sean Josephs and Brad Danler of Brooklyn’s Char No 4., and the team leads a professional, eager-to-please waitstaff in a warm, welcoming dining room. Renee Faris’s desserts are thoughtful. A chocolate custard ($9) is dense and soft, deeply flavored, and a bowl of sharp apple granita, stitched through with tarragon, pairs happily with the last drink of the night.

What a change to end a meal on a light, fresh note. To be reminded at a whiskey bar that excess isn’t essential to pleasure.


Waiter, Bring Us Our Bill’s

The runner climbs a flight of stairs with a heavy load of aged rib eyes and chickens held high above his head, avoiding a disaster a second. In the dining room, there are angry waiters on his back and hostesses cutting through without a feel for the squashed space’s rhythm. A fallen cloth napkin is as dangerous here as a cartoon banana peel. But with a straight back and a steady pace, he glides through the scrum to deliver the dishes to the middle-aged double date.

Bill’s Food & Drink is in a brownstone in midtown that has been serving since Prohibition, when Bill Hardy first converted three of its floors into a retro speakeasy, nostalgic even then for the mustache cups and piano bars of the 1890s. Earlier this year, when the landlord refused to renegotiate Barbara Olmsted’s lease on Bill’s Gay Nineties, which her father had taken over from Hardy, the space changed hands. Now it’s a flashy John DeLucie joint, holding onto its predecessor’s name and a bit of its decor, but not all of its warm and crumbly charm.

On the upper floors, where the walls are cluttered with maps, Victorian portraits, and taxidermied animal heads, it can feel like the wedding reception of a wealthy, well-connected acquaintance. On a recent evening, all of the second-floor dining room patrons seemed to know one another, waving with a wiggle of two or three fingers as they walked around, drinks in hand, winking shiny, creaseless eyes.

Jason Hall’s menu is not particularly compelling. At a glance, it’s the dull, crowd-pleasing steak-pasta-salad options of a first-class club, with an expensive raw bar and $10 sides. There’s a fine, slim, 16-ounce rib eye ($48), with a cloud of horseradish-tinged lardo, on a slick of bordelaise, and a beastly, 40-ounce porterhouse for two ($125) from Kansas-based processor Creekstone Farms, served sliced. A fresh tagliatelle with peppery goat ragu ($19) is full of flavor in a meaty jus and far more exciting than the chophouse dishes. But the Manhattan chowder ($32, sometimes labeled bouillabaisse) is pumped too hard with saffron, and the pieces of fish in its grainy broth are cooked to a near paste.

Most diners don’t seem too interested in octopus or foie gras—they come to the new Bill’s for a piece of protein and to take in the scene. A table of six blond women each ordered a medium-well hamburger ($21) with various bun annotations (toasted bun, untoasted bun, half a bun, no bun). When the plates arrived, one woman scolded the dignified runner as if he were a naughty child: “Jesus Christ, I said no bun!” For dessert, there was a good, if rather simple, scotch pudding ($9), topped with crème fraîche. But the apple fritters ($9), raw and wet inside, soaked through with stale fryer oil, recalled a shop full of cinnamon-scented candles set ablaze.

The piano is still at Bill’s, but Elliot Paul, one of the charming guys who has played it for the last 15 years, isn’t leading a sing-along. “The new place looks so nice, but it’s just not a saloon anymore,” he told me on the phone. He’s right. The renovations have been smart and careful, and there is still some live music, but the mood and the prices have changed quite drastically—at the old Bill’s, the most expensive item on the menu was a $30 steak.

But visit the narrow, dimly lit bar on the ground floor in the middle of the afternoon, and you can still get a sense of what this place used to be. Sinatra croons on the speakers. There are a few tourists among the men in expensive navy suits, and loners reading books. Order a hamburger for lunch or perhaps some fried oysters ($15) and a beer, and the barman will set you a proper place at the wide, wooden bar, laying down a cloth napkin under your plate.

On a recent afternoon, I saw an extraordinarily beautiful woman in her seventies drinking a bottle of wine and eating a hamburger with her hands, discussing the work of a young playwright between mouthfuls. She wore red lipstick and an elaborate hat, and her laugh was like a wild animal yawping into the night. It was the sound of the old Bill’s.


Swine: Farewell, Dear Lesbians…

For nearly two decades, the whitewash-and-timber Tudor house near the corner of Hudson and Charles was a bi-level bar named Rubyfruit, after Rita Mae Brown’s landmark novel Rubyfruit Jungle, said to be revolutionary in its explicit portrayal of erotic love between women. But just as Brown herself turned from books of political import to writing about cat detectives, the bar lost its way in the past few years, as potential patrons moved to Park Slope and the management installed a series of failed restaurants in the lower quarters, while keeping the upstairs tavern intact. Eventually, the lesbians left, to be replaced by Swine.

The restaurant called Swine, that is. What an unlovely moniker, I thought as I gazed up the stairs where a rainbow flag used to hang. Yet like the exterior, the layout of the new place looks remarkably similar to the old one. On the more desirable second floor, there’s a comfy bar and a scattering of tables lit by votive candles. A rear alcove remains a sort of padded conversation pit, where customers once sat out of sight and canoodled. Downstairs still seems like a basement, which it partly is—the tables are bigger, the decor sparer, the feeling danker. The single advantage to sitting there: An open kitchen occupies the deep interior, allowing you to roughly calculate how long it will take for your grub to arrive.

And the food? One would assume that, consistent with the name, it would be mainly pork products, with belly and bacon scattered around like Easter eggs on the White House lawn come springtime. You’d only be partly right. While fatty pork constitutes a powerful but somewhat outdated lure, there’s plenty more to love on the expansive menu.

One pane of the foldout document lists separate categories of charcuterie, cheeses, and cold cuts. Arriving on an elongated carving board, a five-selection assortment from any category ($27) easily appeases three diners as an app. Among my recommendations: The sliced lardo (cured white hog fat) is especially yummy when draped over a piece of toast. The foie gras torchon proves wonderfully cold and oily on the tongue, like marble, and generous for the price. The recently added gravlax is off-theme but welcome, and the chicken-liver mousse turns out to be no slouch, either. With the exception of the homemade ricotta, the cheese selection leaves much to be desired, so go with flesh instead. Each hillock comes with a cheery dab of jam or chutney and a supply of cornichons and grainy mustard.

One step up from the boards are the Toasts, which are like small toasted-cheese sandwiches. But small doesn’t mean non-filling, and the pastrami Reuben ($14) is one of the finest and densest concoctions to fly from a griddle this season. There are several more menu areas—Pickles, Sides, Condiments, and Snacks—the last including deviled eggs (good), cashews roasted in duck fat (blah), and a gloppy version of nachos made with charred potato chips ($9). That dish looks awful but tastes grand. Get the picture? A menu of concentrated salty and greasy tidbits is thought by modern restaurateurs to encourage an enhanced consumption of booze.

But become distracted by nibbles and you’ll miss some of the restaurant’s better offerings. The division called Plates, which has been expanding since Swine’s debut a few months ago, features a nice burger ground from brisket sweetened with bone marrow ($18), a meal-size salad of delicata squash flavored with mint that would have benefited from a more assertively flavored winter vegetable, and, best of all, a chorus line of a dozen Laughing Bird shrimp bounded by pink grapefruit segments and bitter greens. It comes on a schmear of white bean puree like a canvas behind a fine painting. The crustaceans are said to be sustainably farmed in Costa Rica.

The ostensible centerpiece of the mains is a pork cut the restaurant has the hubris to call Swine chop ($21). It’s not particularly large nor tasty, and masticating it requires more energy than it’s worth. Go instead with the gentler bunny. Planted in a lake of buttery polenta, the braised rabbit leg ($19) comes in a rich and savory brown gravy dotted with baby brussels sprouts. Tons of bacon ups the flavor—thank you, swine! For a change, Bugs doesn’t taste like Foghorn Leghorn.

For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.


Munch an Ugly Duckling at Jeepney

Unhatched ducklings make for pretty good eating. Don’t take my word for it—try one, boiled in its shell, at Jeepney, the newest Filipino restaurant to join the Maharlika family in the East Village.

Break the top open and sip from your egg ($4). Think of the impossibly pure broth you get when you poach a whole, unroasted bird—don’t think amniotic fluid and don’t look down, because if you examine the tiny, scaly thing inside, folded up like a sleeping dragon, you might lose your nerve when it comes time to spoon up the duckling and put it in your mouth. Fine, discard it in the provided ramekin if it’s freaking you out with its partially developed tail feathers; the best part of the young balut is what’s left over, a soft yolk and veined egg white, hot and rich right out of the shell.

Jeepney bills itself as a modern Filipino gastropub, but with massive portions of regional dishes, it’s a bit more traditional than it lets on. You’ll find Miguel Trinidad’s sturdy rendition of pinakbet ($16), the Ilocano stew of pork and vegetables from the northern tip of Luzon, studded with green half-moons of bitter melon—an extraordinarily grim and medicinal-tasting vegetable, far more challenging to enjoy than some sweet embryonic bird. A slow-roasted pork shoulder ($15) with roots in Bicol is made with Jeepney’s own longaniza sausage and pickled chiles.

Patis, the Pinoy fish sauce, is available throughout your meal so you can season your food as you go along, though as a rule these heavy, fatty dishes will prefer a dab of vinegar to any additional salt. The oddly named “defeated” chicken ($18) is a little dry in an anise and black bean sauce, served with an almost-candied pig’s foot and slow-poached egg. It tempers out nicely with the vinegar dip, bright with sliced red and green chiles. Jeepney’s arroz caldo ($6) is lovely, tasting of golden-fried garlic, but with the texture of silky grits. It comes with lemons to squeeze over—though the fried tripe on top is tricky to cut when the sharpest thing you’ve got is the edge of a spoon.

So use your fingers to pick things up. Jeepney isn’t trying to be elegant—you don’t have to, either. Servers routinely straighten out wobbly tables with wads of paper napkins shoved under their feet. When littered with pork belly and dried-up fish, tabletops are wiped down with wet, smelly rags from the kitchen. Cocktails are weak and sweet, served in little plastic tumblers, but this food calls for beer, and in vast quantities.

The space on First Avenue is colorful and loud, decorated with vintage pinups. On a recent evening, a beautiful blond East Village drag queen and her date sat under huge images of topless women in the back room, taking phone photos of their pork ribs in super-sour tamarind broth—the night’s special—and of each other. A young couple moaned about work as they shared a fine dessert of hot tofu and chewy tapioca pearls in pink ginger syrup ($6). By 9 p.m., the restaurant was buzzing, comfortably full, and the waitress was greeting many of her tables in Tagalog.

Service is caring, and the staff is keen to explain unfamiliar ingredients and rituals. Sometimes, though, even they aren’t sure. A waitress insisted that the house-made kropek, Filipino-style puffed shrimp chips, were not made with shrimp. With what, then? She couldn’t say.

Portions at Jeepney are monstrous, even the ones with lower prices, but you can still defeat the defeated chicken: Take what’s left home to eat the next day, Pinoy-style. Pull the remaining meat from the bones and stir it over the heat with leftover rice and a little water to make your own bastardized arroz caldo. Simmer the chicken carcass and demolished pig’s foot for a half hour, then strain the gently spiced broth to sip alongside your breakfast, traditionally, like a fortified, meaty tea. You’ll find that even Jeepney’s leftovers will make enough to serve two.


Don’t Stop Smoking at BrisketTown

It was a cold autumn evening, around 5:45 p.m., and the stretch of Bedford Avenue just north of the Williamsburg Bridge was calm and nearly pitch black, save for the occasional J or M train whizzing by overhead, ablaze with light. A ragged line of people extended from the door of a place with minimum signage—it seemed anonymous in the darkness. As the minutes wore on, the line grew. At precisely 6 p.m., ghostly arms could be seen flailing out the door, and an excited murmur rose from the crowd, who pocketed their cell phones and became animated as they began inching toward the entrance.

Once inside, the line wound past a liquor-less bar, through what looked like a cattle sluice, and up to a counter, where a guy with horn-rim specs wore a red visor with a volcano of unkempt hair shooting out the top. Using a giant fork, he pulled smoke-blackened briskets out of a warming cabinet, set them down on the cutting board, and sliced fatty and lean brisket with surgical precision. Between carvings, he leaned over to consult with the customers to find out exactly what their meat expectations were, more priest than deli man. Behind him blazed a red neon cow, while the rest of the high-ceilinged room was plunged in deep shadow.

That was the scene early on at BrisketTown, yet another of New York’s Texas-style barbecues, where the amount of hardwood smoke absorbed by the meat is everything, and sauce is an afterthought. It joins Hill Country, Fette Sau, and, to a lesser extent, Mable’s and John Brown Smokehouse in trying to reproduce the precise taste and texture of Lone Star ‘cue, with brisket as its centerpiece. The man slicing the meat is Daniel Delaney, who as recently as a year ago worked in video production. He went to Texas, brought back a smoker capable of doing 200 pounds of meat at once, and fetched back a supply of post oak, too, the wood used in great barbecue towns like Lockhart and Elgin.

At first, Delaney started serving brisket to friends in his apartment, but soon he hatched the idea for Brisketlab, a pop-up feast that occurred 31 times from late spring to late summer at a variety of odd venues. I caught up with him in June at the cemetery behind the historic Dutch Reformed Church in Flatbush, where he doled out meat, coleslaw, and white bread as a band played old-timey music and customers wandered among the graves like gleeful mourners. The long-smoked brisket was splendid, crusted with a blackened spice rub that sealed in moisture, which wept as the meat was sliced. It was every bit as good as you get in Texas.

Inevitably, the successful pop-up yearns for brick and mortar, and Delaney recently moved into his Williamsburg storefront. He has preserved one of his earlier concepts: Brisket can be pre-ordered online, picked up at 6 p.m., and eaten in the overcrowded restaurant or taken away. But it turns out if you wait till 8 p.m. or so, you can just stroll right in and cop some ($25 per pound), along with a shifting roster of sides that can include coleslaw, cabbage stewed with apples, and German potato salad. Sliced onions and sweet pickles accompany the meat, plus a good stack of white bread for wrapping the brisket up with the condiments, Texas-style.

I talked to Delaney, an affable guy whose excitement is infectious, about the challenges of abandoning his nomad status. My first question: Where did he keep the smoker? “We put it in a 40-foot commercial shipping container and parked it on Flushing Avenue,” he said, whipping out his iPhone and showing me pictures of a metal cylinder fitted into a rectangular space. “It’s been really different smoking the briskets in autumn rather than summer. Briskets behave differently at various outdoor temperatures and humidities. A few days ago, we ruined some because they got too dry.”

While most Texas barbecues smoke their brisket eight to 10 hours, Delaney leaves his in for 12 to 16 hours, starting at 7 p.m. the night before, and selling them out the following day—no leftovers. He’s experimenting with pork ribs now, and on the occasions I visited, these were featured as a supplement with the brisket. The ribs ($22 per pound) are meatier than usual and coated with a rudimentary black pepper rub. But they have a touch of sweetness. “Honey and maple syrup,” said Delaney with a wink. “Come back next week, and we’ll be experimenting with pies.”


Fast-Food Japan Is All Yours on One Midtown Block

For nearly a decade, a Japanese bodega named Yagura operated near the corner of Madison Avenue and 41st Street, on a block that runs directly east from the New York Public Library’s stone lions. In addition to groceries, a prepared-food operation in front with a raised seating area—like a cattle pen—became a lunchtime favorite of librarians and office workers. The menu extended to donburi, seaweed salads, ramen, broiled mackerel, homely yam dishes, and wonderful cream-squirting pastries baked by a crisply uniformed attendant.

Well, Yagura eventually inspired three newer and shinier Nipponese places, making the block christened Library Way into the city’s best Japanese fast-food strip. Most recently opened, Sunrise Mart (12 East 41st Street, 646-380-9280) is a branch of the long-running East Village favorite, boasting a substantial grocery display in the rear. Entering, you’ll see a small seating area; on the right, find a food-prep counter lively with the sound of sizzling fat. Small photocopied color placards hint at the vast range of dishes, most in an over-rice or hero-sandwich vein.

Many of the offerings are extremely oddball, proving Sunrise Mart one of the most ambitious innovators in East-West fusion Gotham has yet seen. This is not necessarily a commendable thing. A cheesesteak hero ($6.75) substituting lamb for beef and Swiss for American is not a bad idea, reminding me of the Weezer lyric from Maladroit, “Cheese smells so good/On a burnt piece of lamb.” But though the smell might entice, the meat is as tough as rhino hide. Another item that sounds good is the so-called rice burger. Unfortunately, only the bun is made of rice, and it falls apart when you take a bite. In addition to the standard beef patty, seven permutations include things like pork kimchi and teriyaki salmon.

But much of Sunrise’s food is great, especially when it stays close to convention. If you’re a fan of okonomiyaki—the gut-busting, mayo-squiggled pancake—the gigundo version here will be more than satisfying, stuffed with pork, shrimp, cabbage, and grated yam ($7.50). The place also excels at donburi, especially the one featuring fried shrimp, onions, and egg over rice. Another advantage at Sunrise is that you can grab a Japanese beer to wash your meal down—even at breakfast. For that meal, a separate counter slings tortured but tasty renditions of French pastries, including a chocolate croissant that also oozes banana.

Moving east, next is Mái Sushi (16 East 41st Street, 212-400-8880). Operating under the slogan “Mái Sushi, My Way,” it sports a full-blown sushi bar in the rear that’s now inactive, serving only as a seating area. However, the sushi pulled from the refrigerator cases is better than you’d expect. An 11-piece assortment that includes half of a tekkamaki roll will cost you only $6.50. But the co-strength of this pleasant spot, laid-back compared with the frenetic Sunrise Mart, lies in its handful of special hot dishes offered every day. These can run to simple assortments of steamed veggies, “hamburg” bento boxes, and, best of all, a pig-foot tonkotsu ramen ($9.50), beige and opaque. It falls only slightly short of Ippudo’s. Another time, there was a refreshingly light udon soup floating lily pads of sweet fried tofu.

Café Zaiya (18 East 41st Street, 212-779-0600), itself a branch of another East Village spot, sits next door to Mái Sushi. Check the signboard out front for daily specials, which can be mind-bogglingly cheap. Once there was a rice bowl topped with cubed bean curd in a ground-pork sauce (mahbo donburi) marked down from $5.49 to $4.49. On another occasion, a chili-shrimp donburi was reduced a similar amount. Note that the sushi sold here is not as pristine as Mái Sushi’s, but adequate nonetheless. The inside will remind you of a mini-food-court, with separate registers for sushi, pastries, and hot food. An airy seating area in the front window allows you to ogle passersby scurrying with their holiday packages.

The tiny Japantown on Library Way buzzes with activity from breakfast till late afternoon, after which it begins to slowly shut down, with kitchens closing around 6:30 p.m. A desiccated selection of leftovers remains available until a half-hour or so later. For supper or evening carryout, arrive early.

I visited all four spots on a daily basis for several weeks. On my last visit, I discovered that the lowliest and earliest, Yagura, had shuttered, perhaps as a result of competition from its newer neighbors. Which is sad, because with a buffet of fried things under heat lamps, cheap and fortifying noodle soups, and cream puffs stuffed as you watched, it was the quirkiest and most charming of all.


Masten Lake to Gowanus Canal at the Pines

A whole week after the massive storm made landfall, locals in Gowanus still wore flannel and knee-high rubber boots to gut their smelly, flooded basements. But inside the Pines, a peeling tin patchwork of wall and ceiling glowed with candlelight. The grim work of the day was over, and friends on pink velvet folding chairs mellowed out with cocktails and Gang Starr. It was time for dinner.

Hot, creamy Japanese yams ($14) arrived whole in their skins, split open, loaded with a dense buttermilk froth, tiny anchovies, raw hearts of palm, and cilantro on tender stems. Sounds odd, but it articulated the power of a kitchen to rouse and cheer. Layers of softness, rich with umami, warmed us right through. As chef Angelo Romano’s food hit, it felt for an evening as if everything would be all right.

Romano ran Masten Lake in Williamsburg, but the adventurous restaurant lasted just seven months before closing. Prior to that, he cooked at Roberta’s, and there’s a touch of the Brooklyn swagger here—that permission to wear baseball caps in the kitchen, turn up the hip-hop, then surprise guests with a precisely constructed ballotine of pheasant (a reminder that Romano knows the classics well enough to have a little fun with them). This no longer feels like a contradiction, but whether it works is another story. Often, at noisy young restaurants, there’s a sense of bravado that the food and service don’t merit, and it makes everyone look bad.

Not at the Pines, which is smart, sincere, and often delicious. If you catch a glimpse of Romano, he is working quietly in the open kitchen. His front-of-house team is down to earth but caring and professional. Sure, they mispronounce the word “amuse,” making it sound like a caffeinated drink you’d pick up on your way to a late-night karaoke session (amooz-AY!), but who could complain about that? Especially when it’s a comically tiny spoon of raw macadamia nut and compressed tangerine, singing of orange blossoms and olive oil, presented with a smile on a silver tray.

Dishes built for sharing can ramble on the plate, like the pork shoulder ($22) scattered in juicy, blushing cubes with feathers of puntarelle, berries, and black garlic. Or they might focus intensely, like the row of raw madai with crispy scales, compact bites with three clean finishes, including the cured, grated fat of a beef short rib ($26). Others look traditional: A beveled bowl, printed with vintage flowers, holds rustic cappellacci ($24), a folded, filled pasta. But inside there’s a hot, meaty elixir, buttery with lardo—a pure essence of oxtail, rather than the threads of sticky braised meat you were expecting. This dreamy, Italian soup dumpling sits in a gentle broth, made on one evening with crabs, on another with langoustines. Like many dishes at the Pines, it involves sharp technique, but it doesn’t show off about it.

The Pines is the younger sibling of Littleneck, the Gowanus clam shack just two doors down, but it’s already going its own way. In one sense, the restaurant is becoming a neighborhood joint where local couples meet after work to sip wine and share plates of pasta at the bar, like the chewy pici ($19), mighty with trotter meat, tomato, and salt—a casual dinner before slumping home, getting into pajamas, and catching up on Homeland. But it’s also growing into a destination for food nerds who want to order 10 dishes, a few with ingredients they’ve never had, and let the kitchen course them out as an informal tasting menu. What makes the Pines so promising is that it plays both roles well. Now, to build an audience.


We Are Proud to Present…: From Cow Costumes to Genocide

What’s in a name? Well, in the case of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, now playing at Soho Rep: Plenty. Not only is it a title to make the obsessive Twitterer weep, but it also captures the difficulties, embarrassments, and dangers to engaging—theatrically or otherwise—with history, particularly its more fraught passages.

During its colonial period, Namibia witnessed a slaughter in which German incomers executed as many as 80 percent of the native Herero tribespeople. “A German genocide,” one character in We Are Proud describes it, “a rehearsal Holocaust.” A colleague feels moved to contradict him. “It wasn’t a rehearsal,” he says.

The piece takes place in the Soho Rep space emptied of its risers and stripped to bare boards and sound baffling. Here, six actors—three white, three black—led by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, have gathered to create the titular show. After a brief overview, enlivened by a genuinely horrible cow costume and sub-Brechtian mime, the players reconvene around folding tables to nibble rice cakes, read source material, and decide how best to present the terrible history they have chanced on via Wikipedia searches.

In pursuit of this, they improvise, take dance breaks, and read aloud letters from German soldiers—the only documentary evidence, as records of the Herero haven’t survived. Drury and director Eric Ting score some cheap and amusing shots at actorly processes and pretensions, particularly a tendency to use volatile material as an opportunity for personal growth. “I was making the part my own,” says one actor, defending a series of appalling choices.

The script also acts several pertinent questions of documentary drama and of theater more generally: Who has the right to tell which stories? How do you create a truthful narrative in the absence of evidence? Is it right or wrong to stage atrocities at all?

The play chugs along amusingly enough until plot and performances take a violent turn. Drury doesn’t entirely earn this ending; the slide from Namibia’s racial horrors to our own country’s history of violence against blacks seems insufficiently considered. But the play’s dramaturgy demands an extreme closing, and you can’t fault her and Ting for attempting one.

If the ending really worked, if audiences felt more drawn in by it, it would render the play even more uncomfortable. After all, We Are Proud offers the dark suggestion that to engage too fervently with past cruelties—in whatever form—is to be transformed and tainted by them. By confronting brutality—as playmakers, as spectators—we risk becoming brutal ourselves.


Go Green at Sabor a Mexico Taqueria

If you’re addicted to the excellent tamales sold surreptitiously from shopping carts around the Port Authority, give those at the East Village’s Sabor a Mexico Taqueria a try. Jam-packed with stuffing and more subtly flavored, the tamales arrive opened like spring flowers, cradled in their corn-husk wrappers. A lovely chile gravy cascades over the top, the way mamita might serve them a su casa. Best is rajas con queso ($3.50), a vegetarian number opulently freighted with flame-roasted jalapeños, onions, tomatoes, and cheese—though another version veined with chicken and salsa verde gives the rajas some fierce competition.

Sabor a Mexico (“Flavor of Mexico”) is a shoe box on First Avenue, sporting only four tables and replete with the usual south-of-the-border decorations—an Aztec calendar, a Virgin of Guadalupe, and a black velvet painting of the full moon rising over Acapulco. Unlike most taquerias in town, Sabor serves beer, which is ideal to wash down the enchiladas, tortas, and soft corn-tortilla tacos that form the heart of the menu. The proprietors hail from Guerrero, a mountainous, mainly rural state that extends from the outskirts of Mexico City to a long shoreline that—paradoxically, given its agrarian nature—includes the glitzy resorts of Ixtapa and Acapulco.

Sure, you can also get specifically Guerreran standards at Sabor, including a pair of unique pozoles ($12.95 each). They’re available all week long, rather than just on the weekends, as at most of the city’s Mexican cafés. And with winter coming on, there’s no better warm-up. These are not the bland white soups found in Pueblan spots. Instead, pozole rojo has a good dose of chiles in a brick-red broth, in addition to shredded chicken and white hominy. There are no tostadas served alongside. In lieu of them, you’re given a basket of chips and invited to doctor the potage with a collection of flavor enhancers: pungent Mexican oregano, sweet white onions, green chiles, fragrant cilantro, sour lime wedges, and an entire half-avocado, crosshatched for easy disgorgement into the soup.

Much rarer in Gotham is pozole verde. Colored green by mountain herbs, the soup is tasty enough even before you throw in the accompanying flavorings. Originating in Guerrero’s capital of Chilpancingo, the green version is eaten there only on Thursdays, according to Diana Kennedy in My Mexico—and then usually at breakfast. On First Avenue, you can have it anytime. Showing the vast culinary range of a state that includes arid mountain landscapes as well as beach-dotted seacoasts, another quintessential dish on Sabor’s menu is camarones a la diabla ($14.95), a half-dozen shrimp bobbing in a thick red gravy made smoky with chipotles. As in most dishes of Mexico’s Deep South, lots more sauce is present than you need. To be eagerly sopped with rice and tortillas, the liquid is the real focus of the meal.

In addition to the usual pan-Mexican dishes, the tiny café-that-could replicates such regional southern Mexico commonplaces as mole poblano and mole pipian, both featuring chicken; hand-sculpted masa huaraches; chiles relleno filled with cheese in a plain tomato sauce; roasted carnitas; and flautas filled with your choice of chicken, cheese, or the dried beef called cecina. At this point, the menu loudly grinds its gears, and shifts into a Mexican-American vein. The rickety bridge between these two culinary cultures is the overstuffed burrito, the towering achievement of California-style Mexican cooking, supposedly perfected in San Francisco’s Mission District.

You can get all the regular gringo burritos ($9.95 to $11), but what’s more interesting are the selections invented at Sabor to represent states in Mexico. This is what linguists call a “back construction.” Thus we have a burrito named after the state of Guerrero that uses chicken in pumpkinseed sauce, and one for Puebla with the familiar pollo mole poblano. The Michoacán variation enfolds fried carnitas, while the one attributed to Toluca is mainly rice, scrambled eggs, and skinless chorizo.

Sabor does Tex-Mex, too. You can get flour-tortilla tacos with a ground-beef filling and steak fajitas—these come dancing on a hot metal platter, but the meat component is uninspiring. However, the restaurant’s nachos ($9.95) are superb, and no tavern does them better. The welter of freshly fried chips come swamped in cheese, with a heap of guacamole planted in the center, and satellite patches of crumbly chorizo, diced tomatoes, and fresh jalapeños. Put on your plastic suit and dive into the moist muddle. It proves that Mexican immigrants from the southern reaches of the country understand exactly what their brethren have been up to in the Lone Star State for the past century or so. Or maybe just what East Villagers like to eat.


Back Forty West: New Soho, New Restaurant

Of course we’re feeling a bit of kale exhaustion. It seems like it burns more calories to chew it like big apes than the leaves actually provide. But for every mediocre kale salad on the menu in New York these days, there’s a good one. An austere, raw rendition at Northern Spy Food, rubbed with salt and olive oil to tenderize the ruffles, will taste of absolution to the overindulgent food lover. A memorable version at Battersby involves fresh and fried leaves, tempered with other greens, and a dressing that goes sweet and lowdown with palm sugar and fish sauce.

Chef Shanna Pacifico developed one for Peter Hoffman at his restaurant Back Forty in the East Village, then brought it to Back Forty West, Hoffman’s sister restaurant, which opened in February. The leaves are in big pieces, softened on the grill and mixed with escarole. A light dressing and some Parmigiano lend richness, and there are crisp fried capers and crunchy chickpeas scattered about, along with white anchovies. Like much of the food at Back Forty West, the dish is generous and nourishing, and you could eat it pretty often. Some people do. “Do you have the kale salad?” an elderly woman shouts at the waiter. “I’ll tell you why I’m asking. Because you didn’t have it last night, that’s why.”

Hoffman is famous for opening Savoy in 1990 in a then-grimy Soho. The chef was a pioneer, seeking out American-grown ingredients instead of trendier French ones and following local harvests to produce true, seasonal cooking, long before kale was MVP. Although Hoffman closed Savoy last year and reopened it with a new name and a more casual vibe, he has kept many of his regulars. Locals who came here on dates now visit to celebrate their family’s milestones, heading upstairs to the cozy dining room with paned glass windows, where the walls hang with crooked illustrations and the cracked skull of some small horned mammal.

Because of the casual, walk-in atmosphere, tourists with shopping bags and sore feet also feel welcome popping in for hamburgers on Orwasher’s potato rolls ($12) and glasses of wine at the awkward side-by-side tables next to the bar. New Yorkers who don’t have to drag a deli salad back to their cubes for lunch treat themselves to the fried chicken on a fat, just-sweet-enough waffle ($15)—the meat tender and juicy, the skin dark and crisp.

The menu changes often, but seasonal vegetables are cooked with care, vinegars and fats applied generously and gracefully. A salad of carrot and Asian pear ($12) had an unexpected depth, coated in a dressing made also with carrots and dotted with lumps of savory blue cheese and Marcona almonds. Here is a plate of carrots you’ll find yourself eating with gusto.

The kitchen is thoughtful. A smooth pumpkin hummus ($13) under a pool of good olive oil is paired with soft, warm pita and charred bread, olives, and pickled vegetables. An excellent trout with crisp skin ($25), cooked beautifully, looks whole and intact, but a steady-handed cook has removed the bones for easy sharing. Pork done in the restaurant’s smoker finds its way into the popular pulled-pork sammy ($12). It comes with a squeeze tube of house-made barbecue sauce, but the meat is so rich with smoke, chile, and vinegar that it doesn’t need the help.

Occasionally, a dish at Back Forty West will disappoint. Like the osso buco ($21) on a recent night, which was tight and tough, a trace of meat clinging to the bone, capped with hard, gnarly fat. Or the tagliatelle special dressed in a goat ragu—the sauce so rich and balanced, ruined by gummy pasta.

More likely though, a good dish will remind you why Hoffman’s restaurant is special, like the slice of tall, cold New York–style cheesecake ($9) drizzled in grape sauce, bolstered with bourbon. It’s creamy with a melt-away texture and thin crust. The dark sauce is made with Concord grapes, those small, purple, slip-skin fruits full of candy perfume, grown upstate in massive quantities and harvested right now. Even the cheesecakes here can taste like fall.