A few weekends ago I had the unrivaled pleasure of enjoying brunch across the table from an old friend at Reynard. As Shaw says, there is no sincerer love than the love of food, especially if that food is baked eggs with house cured bacon and shiitake mushrooms (there were cubes of bacon! CUBES!), and even more so if it was ordered by a woman you've known for a decade and admire deeply, who happens to be willing to share.
I love Reynard on a late Sunday morning because it is bright and brunchy without being loud or excessive, in any sense of those words. Aptly surrounded by the habitual visual elements of the Williamsburg brunch scene—beautiful unfussy babies, hexagonal mosaic tile, permanently golden dust-speckled light—we feasted on food that was warm and good and not fastidious. I had a frittata with silky ricotta and hunks of chunky broccoli (update: in an act of seasonal sensitivity the broccoli in this dish has now been replaced with green and gold zucchinisummer squash and basil, which I imagine is equally lovely).
But we are not here to talk about baked eggs, frittatas, or magically well-behaved infants in upscale hotel restaurants. We are here to talk about bread, something that Reynard does exceptionally well.
Bread at Reynard is only provided upon request, it is a menu item, and it set us back a whole $4. It arrived awkwardly halfway through our meal, because we ordered it only upon realizing that we desperately needed something to sop up all that smokey bacon juice (proof that this was a pragmatic decision and not just the caprice of two glutenites). Two slices of sprouted spelt bread presented modestly on a porcelain dish, boasting nothing, much less their merit as a separate item on the menu that must be paid for in addition to a meal, are rarely anything but signs of a persnickety kitchen lacking the graciousness of a good host. But these are not that. First of all, the bread was buttered on both sides, an arcane practice that I will now replicate with enthusiasm. Secondly, it was toasted in a wood oven in a cast iron skillet and I don't have to tell you what happens when bread meets animal fat meets velvety cast iron. Lastly and very significantly, it was served alongside more butter.
The bread, I learned, is from She Wolf Bakery, a wood oven bread experiment turned Greenpoint bakery started in 2009 by Reynard's owner (and general Brooklyn restauranteur) Andrew Tarlow. Years later and to the delight of every hedonistic New Yorker, all of Tarlow's restaurants and many others across the city source their bread from She Wolf. They're revered for their sourdough, another Reynard toast option that, I should mention, was not offered to us. This is more than okay, as we were thrilled with our spelt, and seduced by the mere fact of not having to make a choice at all, another Sunday indulgence.
Maybe Martha is trying to please everyone - here's to a restaurant that serves microgreens and chicken wings - but it is probably succeeding. Although enamored by this spot long before I decided to leave my teeny Upper East Side studio for a fourth-floor walk-up in Bushwick, my most recent visit as a newcomer to the borough was symbolic. Martha's breezy space on Carlton and Delkab, all but hidden next to a blocky food market nearby hilly Fort Greene Park, felt strangely like home. With its smooth wooden tabletops, cool glass bottles, sturdy chrome stools, and delicate light courtesy of generous windows and a backyard patio, it emanates the sweet freshness and guiltless idle of a nap on a hammock, or an afternoon whiled away with a tall hot French press and a book you've already reread once, even twice before.
The lunch menu reads like a hybrid between street-cart and farm-to-table peppered with sandwich names no less saucy than the fare itself ("rogue sailor!") and numerous welcome appearances of the modifier "fried." Sandwiches are Martha's claim to fame: in its early days, the restaurant was known as the Brooklyn Sandwich Society. Although the repertoire has since expanded, I stuck to the classics—which are, it so happens, far from traditional. The Sloppy Josephine is more like a deconstructed burger than its drippy namesake, with packed ground lamb spiked with five-spice and gingery lime pickles inspired by nimbu adrak ka acchar, an Indian pickling method involving no vinegar or oil. Served open-faced with a big, splashy fried egg on top, Sloppy Josephine is to Joe as croque-madame is to monsieur. The All-American, Asian-spiced reference to a Parisian bistro staple somehow works, perhaps because the bizarre eclecticism of its parts is tempered by a warm, cornmeal-sprinkled village round sandwich roll from Balthazar Bakery, so yeasty and bubbly; still, I was delighted to find that a sandwich this well-traveled could taste so much like comfort food.
There is no quicker way to feel like a culinary genius than to whip up a fabulous omelet with the various, often incongruent odds and ends found in an otherwise understocked fridge; the Roti John sandwich at Martha is like your midnight Sriracha-drenched egg improvisations but cleaned up and fully graduated. The sleek scallion and smokey lap chong omelette on buttery bread gets its heat from sambal (chili peppers, coarsely ground), pickled jalapeños, and smoked paprika; whole cilantro leaves act as an invigorating palate cleanser before the whole thing makes you drowsy. Even then, rapacious eaters like me will have to pace themselves—the bread, plush and toasty, is extravagant in itself, the kind that leaves the tips of your fingers shiny and of which I could probably consume an entire loaf before it became anything more.
Tip: wash it all down with white wine at 3pm on a Sunday; I learned it the easy way. They also have something called hot buttered sake that sounds a lot like getting tipsy at the movies and will be on my tab when I head over for dinner, now that I live only 2.9 miles away. Sake or not, I'll have to make my way back for dessert, for which I had no room this time - the globetrotting combinations of our first courses fully satisfied my wanderlust.
When we speak about trying new flavors, we tend to mean the unknown: sautéd grasshoppers on an impromptu trip to Mexico, awash with aguardiente, blazing sun, a leap of faith. At La Pecora Bianca, "new" means what you already know, but different. The food had a consistent and vaguely obnoxious way of proving me wrong. Like good art (think Ed Ruscha's word paintings) it mocked me a little, but not too much that pretension inhibited pleasure.
The first dish we had - roasted whole golden Enoki - can only be described as a giant mushroom. In the thrilling moments of pre-bite suspense the word density came to mind, as in the dense, musty quality of a proper giant mushroom. It was anything but. Cool and earthy like the sound of footsteps on wet marsh, its filaments free and unabashed, stringy and textured. A light and airy departure from density, sitting on a puddle of the greenest salsa verde (we asked for more and were presented with an entire bowl, as if to say: this is a no-judgment zone), bread crumbs, raisins. I ran the emotional gamut from start to finish, beginning with the anxiety of realizing that a heady and indulgent experience this was not, to acceptance to rediscovery and ultimately, a strangely calm satisfaction. This was not the loud mushroom mass outputted by kitchens, where flavor is forced, sweated out in a hot pan. La Pecora Bianca waltzed in imperceptibly, and quietly and elegantly, it showed up all the glitzy fungi in town.
Pesche came next, charred peaches smothered in sheep's milk ricotta that felt luxuriously like dessert despite the fact that it falls under the menu's antipasti. Candied lemon zest dots the dish like grown-up sprinkles on an an ice cream cone and it is all campfire memories after that. Ricotta makes for a savory variation of à la mode. It screamed summer's almost through and tasted like nostalgia (like the salty tears in the wedding cake batter in the book Water for Chocolate.)
While "pesche" is just a fancy word for peaches, "einkorn gramigna" is a more complicated mouthful. The gist of this primi is that house made pork sausage competes with homemade pasta for feel-good attention. The real star, however, is the garlic, which somehow manages to not be overpowered and, conversely, to overpower nothing. If it makes more sense, here again there is the sense of reinvention that carries on Claudette/Mark Barak's tradition of juxtaposing surprise and subtlety. Invisible but discernible, this garlic dares to be introspective and challenge its identity as a tried-but-true staple of Italian gastronomy, discovering a fresh multi-functionality. It adds a kick to the gramigna while playing on pork's sweetness and still lands on its own two feet, autonomous with a fierce personality: a keeper.
Disaster struck the final course when the server delivered the news that the kitchen was out of ricotta cheesecake, doubly tragic as it forced a choice between panna cotta and chocolate mousse, a face-off not for the faint of heart. The former won me over and will seduce even the most timid dessert-orderers. Because panna cotta at La Pecora is made with sheep's milk (hankering back to the charred peaches a few dishes earlier), perfumed with lemon verbena, finished off with candied lavender, and served in a little glass jar that looks just like those Parmalat yogurt containers rife in European supermarkets, it is slightly silly. But it is also extremely mature and requires supervision, lest you polish it off in minutes.
"Pecora bianca" means white sheep in Italian, and certainly evokes a sort of childish innocence. Sheep have an unfortunate reputation for being blind followers. Sitting at the chef's counter at La Pecora Bianca I understood the wile behind the name.
It is so important that cooking be inspired by memories. Especially when cooking for oneself, which rarely does not feel intimate and self-indulgent and everything from a reflection in the glisten of olive oil to the labyrinthine layers of an onion seems to provoke a retrospective thought, the very act is a way to relive a moment past. Today's sautéed scallops with lemon beurre blanc - adapted from this recipe - were the direct result of walking by a mountain of lemons at the grocery store ("the most versatile of all citrus!", boasted the sign, as if we did not already know this) and suddenly I was back in Praiano, in the Amalfi Coast of Italy, the most wonderful place that I have known in the world. It is also a place, incidentally, where lemon trees abound, so lush that the fragrance permeates the air next to your pillow before you've managed to rub the sleep from your eyes:
I almost categorically refuse to eat any species the members of which carry their home with them (i.e., snails). Scallops are the outlier, though I might add that, while I consume them enthusiastically, their molluskal origins are much easier forgotten when concealed by a sauce that's both rich and slightly challenging to fabricate. Hence "beurre blanc" – a tricky emulsified butter concoction that requires nimble whisking, attention to timing, and a mathematically precise butter to vermouth ratio that was only complicated, in this case, by the added element of lemon juice. Julia Child talks up a beurre blanc storm in one of her cookbooks, attributing France's culinary and social acceptance of brochet ("a fine large white-fleshed fish...full of big and little bones seemingly running in every direction") entirely to its being accompanied universally by beurre blanc. "It has taken something like this divine sauce," she reflects with palpable wistfulness, "to make it a desirable fish."
Julia's beurre blanc was not lemon-based, but her observation on the almost unparalleled power of transformation that is possible in the kitchen, where high culture and low culture overlap and redefine themselves (and no one is better at this than the French), led me to think in similar terms of "the most versatile of all citrus". The mundane becomes dignified when it slips beneath the cloak of lemon juice or zest–or both, as anyone who's tried Smitten Kitchen's goat cheese and asparagus pasta can surely attest–; wedges of mango go from rubbery to just delightfully slippery under its spray, and there is no pan of oven-roasted broccolini or bok choy or even fennel that would not benefit from a squeeze.
Though admittedly a free association to the seaside stillness of Praiano, my fairy tale romance with lemons has been a tranquil affair, no rocky bumps along the way nor stormy clouds ahead, and this textual ode is a way of renewing our vows. Telling the lie to the saying that you can have too much of a good thing – I always preferred an overload of acidity to the dull alternative of not enough – I will likely fall under the spell of lemon's zesty witchcraft throughout amateur culinary endeavors for years to come.