Char No. 4
196 Smith Street, Brooklyn NY 11201 (b/n Baltic and Warren; map); 718-643-2106; charno4.com
Service: Relaxed but attentive
Setting: Minimally decorated bar and narrow dining room with booths, with a pleasant "garden" in the back
Compare It To: Brooklyn Star, Fette Sau
Must-Haves: Lamb pastrami, house-cured BLT, brisket sandwich
Cost: $20-$25 for lunch, including food, beverage (unless you're drinking hard stuff at lunch), tax, and tip
Here's how Char No. 4 describes itself: "Char No. 4 is a whiskey bar and restaurant inspired by a passion for bourbon. It features over 150 American whiskeys and serves a menu of American fare with a Southern influence. The American whiskeys are augmented by an extensive list of whiskeys from Europe and beyond as well as a selection of all-bourbon cocktails."
Hmm: "Passion for bourbon." "150 American whiskeys." "All-bourbon cocktails."
I don't drink whiskey or bourbon, no matter what its provenance (yes, I'm a wuss who drinks so little my wife calls me a Mormon). So even though I've always been intrigued by the sound of the bacon and barbecue-centric American southern fare, I've managed to stay away from Char No. 4. Then I found out that the restaurant has started serving lunch, on Fridays only, during the week. That Friday gave me just the opening the Serious Eaters needed to descend on Char No. 4 one particularly lovely fall afternoon.
It's hard to miss the whiskeys. They're lined up ever so carefully on a pretty backlit bar located in the front of the restaurant. We walked past the handsome wooden booths to eat in the small fenced-in outdoor seating area, in what would be the garden if there were any grass or plants to be found.
Char No. 4 is not exactly a barbecue restaurant or joint, but chef Matt Greco brings some legit barbecue bona fides as well as serious classic cooking technique cred to its kitchen. He grew up in Texas, smoking meat side by side with his dad; at the restaurant he uses only white oak, the same wood used in bourbon caskets, in his Backwoods Smoker made in Louisiana. When he was eighteen, he and his dad built a smoker together. (That's my kind of father-son bonding experience.) Add that to his CIA training and his years spent with Andrew Carmellini and Gray Kunz and you get Char No. 4's genuinely barbecue and pork-centric menu, infused with plenty of chef skills and know-how, that is not wed to traditional barbecue and bacon orthodoxy.
Take his seriously delicious brisket sandwich. In his native Texas you'd have to make your own brisket sandwich on the whitest of white bread, with maybe a pickle. Greco's brisket is rubbed with brown sugar, salt, black pepper, and some secret spices before being smoked for 14 hours. It's then sliced thin on the meat slicer and served on a sourdough roll with beer cheese, pickled cabbage with cumin, and a house BBQ sauce. It's not all that smokey, but is juicy, moist and tender. Barbecue purists may shake their head, but damn, this is an excellent sandwich.
If the brisket sandwich is a solid triple, the house-cured lamb pastrami with coriander aioli and rye-caraway toast ($12) is a tape-measure home run. Greco brines and cures a lamb shoulder for seven days before smoking and braising it in a lamb stock. It then rests for a day before being rolled into a roulade, shaved thin on the slicer (I guess Greco really likes his meat slicer), and served over a coriander and black pepper aioli and topped with pickled onions and baby cilantro. Sounds unnecessarily complicated, but man, if it were the littlest bit juicier, it would be the best pastrami to be had in this town.
Smoked and fried pork nuggets with Char No. 4 hot sauce are made from the trim of the kitchen's own bacon, ham, and smoked pork butt. They're essentially scrapple nuggets that have been smoked, breaded with panko, and fried.
To make the house-smoked BLT ($9) (the B stands for belly, not exactly for bacon), Greco cures a pork belly for a day and then braises and smokes it with maple syrup and baking spices. And just when your cardiologist is already crying uncle, he then breads thick slices of the pork belly and deep-fries them. He then serves it on toast with pickled tomato, romaine & chile mustard aioli. His BLT looks almost dainty and tea sandwich-like, but don't let its diminutive size fool you. It packs a huge flavor and crunch wallop.
The chopped pork sandwich with pickled onions and peppers, Char No. 4 mustard barbecue sauce and side of baked beans ($14) is made from bone-in pork butt that has been brined for six hours and smoked for another eight. According to Greco and his restaurateur partner Sean Joseph, "We don't cook the pork long enough to be able to pull it off the bone, in order to retain more of the organic pork flavor. This is why we chop it." Barbecue purists may scoff at this sandwich (the meat is not very tender or smoky), and I probably wouldn't order it again, but it is a perfectly fine swine sandwich. It's just not easily recognizable as a pork barbecue sandwich.
Greco moves from Texas to Wisconsin with his appealing, what's-not-to-like crispy cheddar curds with spicy pimento sauce ($7).
For dessert the homemade butter pecan ice cream ($7) is excellent, even without shot of bourbon that comes with it. Ahh, there's the Mormon in me coming out.
It turns out that you don't even have to like bourbon or whiskey to enjoy yourself at Char No. 4, though if you do, you will think you've died and gone to whiskey heaven when you walk in the door. It helps if you like fried food, pork, and barbecue. And do come hungry, because this food is not light fare.