A Star Grows In Brooklyn: Reinvented Southern Classics At Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Star
33 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn NY 11211; (map); 718-599-9899; thebrooklynstar.com
Service: Competent servers well-versed in the food and totally on the ball. If you’re lucky, Caroline will be your waitress—say hello to a fellow Serious Eater!
Setting: Inviting, if somewhat spartan, with attractive slate-topped tables, cozy window nooks, and wood-paneled walls.
Compare to: Egg (dinner), Char No. 4, General Greene
Must Haves: Dr. Pepper Ribs, BBQ catfish, creamed corn with smoked trout
Cost: $4 breads and sides, $7 to $18 for small plates, $13 to $19 for mains (plus a $58, 36oz. T-Bone)
Booze: No liquor license yet, but it's coming soon.
Skinny jeans and Southern fare may not be the most likely of bedfellows, but lucky Williamsburg seems to be in the middle of a real Southern revival. First came Metropolitan Avenue barbecue joint Fette Sau, an early entrant in the urban brisket scene; then brunch favorite Egg launched a deep South dinner menu whose fried chicken and dirty rice won immediate attention.
And now, just a few blocks away, is the newly arrived Brooklyn Star. Opened in May by Joaquin Baca, David Chang’s chef-turned-partner at Momofuku, Brooklyn Star brings a modern sensibility to Southern classics like fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, and country-fried steak. It’s food that makes you want to sit back, loosen your belt, and throw nutritional caution to the wind. Bacon, butter, and batter form the trinity of choice. Nothing sparks shouting like a Southern joint in Yankee country, but I won’t venture to weigh in on whether the dishes that come from this kitchen are “authentic.” That’s not the point, any more than the point of Momofuku is to serve traditional Korean fare.
There are more than a few Momofuku comparisons to be made: both restaurants take a respectful, if unorthodox approach to a particular cuisine, with a whole lot of fatty pork and the occasional dash of sriracha thrown in. Brooklyn Star doesn’t flout culinary boundaries with quite the same abandon. But there’s an awful lot of good eatin’ to be had.
Start things off with the cornbread, baked to order in a cast-iron pan, either plain ($4) or studded with bacon and jalapeño ($4.50). Opt for the latter—buttery and tender, it gets a smoky-spicy flavor creep from the add-ins.
Just as good were the fist-sized buttermilk biscuits ($4), curiously plush, a tad salty, a tad sweet. They don’t actually need butter—there’s not a dry spot in them—but a little swipe won’t hurt, and neither will a drizzle of honey, straight from the bear.
The Dr. Pepper Ribs ($16) have been written about in every corner of the blogosphere, often by those who haven’t actually tried them. Our vote? Two big, fat, sauce-sticky thumbs up. The stubby pork ribs get a double dose of the Doctor—first braised in the soda, then doused in a soda-laced sauce—and arrive at the table so tender they fall off the bone the moment your hand hovers over them. But the meat retains its textural integrity, helped by a nicely charred outside crust. The vinegar-heavy, almost-spicy sauce stays sweet rather than saccharine, and though it would surely shout down anything else it touched, the ribs pack so much fatty, porky flavor that they never get lost. Call them gimmicky, call them overhyped, but these ribs don't care.
Almost as novel are the Fried Pig Tails ($11)—braised, then fried, in a sauce of honey, mustard, and vinegar. While there’s nothing long or curly, the freakily segmented bones and occasional jellified meat bits don’t let you forget what you’re eating. Imagine chicken wings made of pork, and you’ll have a good idea of the pig tails, whose thin shards of meat manage to be both tender and crispy—incredibly appealing, if you can get past the visible vertebrae.
The summer squash casserole ($8), another cast-iron arrival, was a creamy delight— the squash sliced so thinly it almost disappeared into its sultry warm bath, leaving only a bit of a bite behind.
The mac and cheese ($9) came to the table bubbling audibly, so hot you could hear it. Just as heart-stoppingly rich, dotted with cubes of tender bacon and topped with browned bread crumbs, this is a dish that would make Paula Deen proud. The best mac and cheese I’ve ever had? Maybe not quite, but that didn’t stop us from scarfing it down.
Fried green tomatoes ($9) were one of the few slight missteps. Unripe but not actually green, they were too thickly cut and too thickly battered, an almost cracker-like cornmeal crust over an almost apple-like slice of tomato. That said, the tomato vinaigrette was phenomenal: oven-roasted tomatoes pureed with thyme, sage, and sriracha. I started dipping the biscuits in the leftover sauce.
A hot meatloaf sandwich ($9) came on toasted country white bread, with a hefty slice of meatloaf and a layer of mashed potato, livened up with iceberg lettuce doused in the same tomato vinaigrette. The meatloaf didn’t come through quite as strongly as I would have liked. But the paper-thin housemade potato chips, sprinkled with salt and pepper, could not have been better.
Then came the big plates. The catfish ($13) arrived flaky and moist, brushed with (but not dominated by) a tangy barbecue glaze. Catfish often gets drowned in spice, but this preparation rightly let the fish take center stage. The sides were incredibly fun: buttery grits with a firm bite, and fried cucumbers that were barely pickled before a dip in the batter and toss in the fryer. Hey, we fry zucchini all the time—why not its chubby cousin?
Per Caroline’s recommendation, we ordered the half roasted Murray’s Chicken ($19). Briney and fleshy, the chicken itself could not have been more tender. The darkly sweet molasses glaze was a bit overpowering upon first bite, but with such an incredible amount of chicken to get through, it all evened out. The dish came with what may be the most exciting rice that chicken has ever met, with pea shoots, apples, and awesomely gratuitous bacon—lest anything on this menu escape with a cardiologist’s stamp of approval.
The mammoth country fried steak ($15) was every bit as crispy as one could hope, not greasy in the slightest, with a crust that crunched audibly on the cut and shielded the lean meat underneath. And its hot slaw cushion cradled more salty pork bits. (This meal could have been subtitled “Pig, Nine Ways.”)
But my favorite bite of the night was out of a side dish—the creamed corn with smoked trout ($4), so generously portioned it could have been a meal in itself. The corn softened into the silky, creamy base without losing its crunch, and the trout, flaking and falling apart in the heat, imparted a smokiness all the way through. We didn’t quite lick the bowl, but a minute longer with it and we might have.
And for dessert? There’s only one option, as fun and fried as anything else on the menu: cornmeal-battered fried strawberries ($5), served over vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of honey. Bizarre, but awesome, the berries end up slurpy and warm and incredibly tasty.
Brooklyn Star isn’t perfect, but its slips are few and far between, and it’s easy to imagine that a chef as skilled as Baca will learn to work out the kinks. And the vast majority of his menu needs no apology, celebrating the Southern tradition in all its sloppy glory. Does rice need bacon grease? Does coleslaw need salty pork? Do strawberries really need to be fried? Probably not—but we wouldn’t have it any other way.