"Smart cocktails, a Michelin-starred chef, and no plate over $16?"
Editor's note: Ed Levine is off this week; Carey Jones, editor of Serious Eats: New York, fills in.
Saul Bolton has a nose for neighborhoods. Ten years ago, his first restaurant, Saul, opened on Smith Street and garnered immediate acclaim as a Boerum Hill pioneer—a distinction underscored by the Michelin star that followed, to this day one of only three in Brooklyn.
570 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11238 (at Bergen; map); 718-623-0570, thevanderbiltnyc.com
Service: Informal but very competent
Setting: Sophisticated, if casual, somewhere between pleasantly lively and jam-packed
Must-Haves: Shisho peppers, pig's feet, mackerel, pork loin, goat cheesecake
Cost: Small plates, the largest a bit shy of entree size, from $4-$16
Times have changed. The fine dining border of Brooklyn creeps further east; the unbuttoned, walk-in bar-staurant has, for a younger generation, become the neighborhood fixture that the cozy corner restaurant once was. Bolton's new venture, The Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights (created with Ben Daitz of Num Pang), is little more than a mile from Saul, but seems worlds away.
If it were a pub, one could call it a gastropub. (It's not; please don't.) No white tablecloths; no three-course menu in sight. Instead, you'll find a young, lively, dimly lit space where servers greet you cheerfully over the din and dishes appear as fast as the kitchen can fire them. Small plates, small portions—and grand ambitions.
Smart cocktails, a Michelin-starred chef, and no plate over $16? To this stretch of Prospect Heights, it may be a dream come true. The neighborhood has all the trappings of 2009's young professionals—artisinal coffee, organic markets stocked with microbrews, increasingly sophisticated bars—but, to this point, a relatively meager stock of serious chefs. The Vanderbilt has stepped neatly into that void. In the month since its opening, the restaurant has been slammed every night with no signs of slowing.
Is The Vanderbilt the place this crowd has been waiting for? In a number of ways, it is: infectious energy, an impressive bar, an ambitious, internationally inflected menu. And while the food isn't yet flawless, and the prices not the bargain they initially seem, it's easy to have an excellent, even memorably delicious meal.
As befits a venue as much bar as restaurant, The Vanderbilt is well-outfitted on the drink front, with six $6 beers on draft (Dogfish Head 60 Minute, Captain Lawrence Smoked Porter) and thirteen more by the bottle (Saison Dupont, La Choufe, Einbecker Maiurbock). For the bargain-seekers, wines by the glass include a surprisingly tasty $5 house red, a smoky Deloach Pinot Noir with a soft finish. And there's a great deal of attention to cocktails. With gin and Campari, a slice of blood orange and a splash of champagne, the Glyda Rose is a lighter (dare-I-say girlier) version of a Negroni; less bitter, far more drinkable.
Appetizers and Charcuterie
If ordering from the list of hors d'oeuvres, either from the front bar section or the dining room behind, start with the Shishito Peppers ($6): thin-skinned, thin-walled Japanese mild peppers blistered on the heat. They're enlivened by a smoky-tart pimenton salt. "It's kind of like those salt-and-vinegar potato chips," Chef Bolton told us. "Salty and mouth-puckering at once." It's hard to imagine a bar snack more addictive.
Equally tasty were the Brussels Sprouts ($5) with crispy skins and a perfect char, sprinkled with sesame seeds and brushed with a sweet, spicy glaze of sriracha, lime, and honey. The effect? "These taste like Chinese food," one of my dinner companions opined. "In a really, really good way."
Oreilles de Christ ($4), literally "Christ's ears," are supremely crunchy and unusually dense deep-fried pork jowls. The tiny squeeze bottles house a mouth-searing pique so spicy, it should come with a warning label.
For a more substantial snack, go for the Serrano Ham Croquets ($8). Perfectly crisp on the outside, downright silky within, they'd be at home on any tapas bar—though even in Spain I'd never eaten one so aggressively, delightfully hammy.
Charcuterie is clearly a matter of pride, with its own corner of The Vanderbilt's menu. Simple, but essentially perfect Duck Rillettes ($11) came with a bright quince jam. It's a generous portion; ask for more crusty bread.
A satisfyingly thick crunchy crust cradled the enticing fall-apart pork of the Crispy Pig Feet ($10)—cut, if not exactly lightened, by a pickle-studded sauce gribiche (like a rich man's tartar sauce).
Spicy Blood Sausage ($10) would be a perfect gateway link for the blood-averse: supple as a pate, judiciously seasoned and set atop a delicate, creamy celery root puree, it managed the tangy depth of a blood sausage without that off-putting metallic aftertaste.
Grilled Merguez ($10) had the perfect snap of a fine sausage and a slow, subtle heat, livened up by pickled eggplant but let down by too-tough chickpeas.
A special of tiny fried sand eels ($10) came in a heaping pile, mildly salty, only faintly fishy, like toned-down sardines. I thought back to a meal on an Adriatic fishing boat in Italy: lunch plucked straight from the sea, a light coat of flour, a quick dip in oil—fresh, dry, perfect.
Fresh & Pickled Fennel ($9), though beautifully adorned with orange segments and salty olives, felt more like a palate cleanser than a dish of its own.
A Warm Fall Salad ($11) gets an A+ for composition: the sweetly caramelized pumpkin, the crunch of hazelnuts, the sharp bite of Parmesan. I'm of the opinion that a runny egg yolk can improve everything, and our waitress did term this a "very soft-poached egg"—but I'd never had an egg so runny the white hadn't set.
Meat and Fish
While all clocking in well below $20, items on the "Meat" and "Fish" corners of the menu appear more-budget friendly they are. A light eater might be happy with a single dish; hungrier customers will need to supplement. Prices start at reasonable and head north from there.
We were least impressed by the Spicy Fried Chicken Wings ($12), which had a pleasant heat but generic, unflavorful white meat. And the price was a little hard to swallow.
Grilled Pork Loin ($16), on the other hand, was superb—a tender cut of pork atop a sweet, squashy butternut puree, with fluffy flour-based Parisian gnocchi and delicate curves of brussels sprout shells.
Grilled Spanish Octopus ($12) worked with a perfect array of flavors—a fruity olive oil, a hint of lemon—but the octopus itself was a bit tough and the hefty cranberry beans, a bit dry.
Our waitress raved about the Spanish Mackerel a la Plancha ($15), and for good reason. A perfect illustration of a simple dish done right, the beautiful cut of fish was amply oiled and salted, seared, and laid atop a delicious stew of tomatoes and peppers that proved the only accent it needed.
She won further points by pointing us towards the Steamed Bouchot Mussels ($12), swimming in a fresh-tasting broth of coconut, basil, and chili that soaked all the way through their enormous, plump bodies.
Warm Spiced Doughnuts ($9) were cakey rather than fluffy, best when soaked in the pistachio ice cream, brandied cherries, and apricot orange blossom coulis that all dissolved into a single sweet, frangrant, utterly delicious soup.
A cute play on peanut butter and jelly, the insanely fudgy Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake ($9), dotted with caramel popcorn, comes alongside a jam-sweet Concord grape gelee and a nicely tart buttermilk ice cream.
Best of all was the creamy, tangy Goat Cheesecake ($9). The red wine pear sorbet was delicious but not entirely necessary; red wine-poached pears, on the other hand, were the perfect pair to the rich, silky cake. And the walnut streusel crumble is the kind of dessert accent you find yourself plucking up from the almost-clean plate long after the cheesecake is gone. If we ever follow up our cheesecake search with a "Best Goat Cheesecakes In New York" hunt, I'm starting right here.
Is The Vanderbilt worth a trip? For those in the neighborhood, absolutely, and perhaps even for those further afield. The menu isn't without its weak points, but those are easily forgotten with the arrival of another round of shisho peppers, the sultry pig's feet, the impossibly sweet caramelized pumpkin. And in fairness, The Vanderbilt's doors have barely opened; we, like so many in the restaurant's constant crowd, were too excited to stay away.
As one far happier to pay $15 for a small, beautifully crafted entree than $25 for an unwieldy cut of meat I can't finish, I'm all for a menu with restrained portions. And even when added up, it's not an unusually pricey affair—a party of two could share four starters, two entrees and a dessert and escape for $35 each (before drinks or tip).
For a serious restaurant, that tab is expected. It's simply a bit pricier than the menu and barroom feel would have one believe. And that, in essence, is The Vanderbilt: an ambitious restaurant in neighborhood bar clothing.