268 Clinton Street, Brooklyn NY 11201 (at Verandah Place; map); 718-855-8110; breuckelenrestaurant.com
Service: Professional and polished
Setting: Landmark building housing an elegant, sedate dining room
Compare It To: Saul, Dressler
Must-Haves: Cauliflower soup, spicy sausage rigatoni, pork
Cost: Apps $9-14, mains $13-28
Grade: An optimistic B
Restaurant names are tricky business. Consider the new Cobble Hill restaurant Breuckelen, a name that poses all sorts of problems. First of all, how to pronounce it? Presumably, just like the borough, despite its Dutch spelling. But then, someone asks you where you're going to dinner, and you say "Brooklyn"—and you're immediately caught in a game Who's On First. (If you are going Dutch, in the pronounciation sense, it's something approximating bah-ROQUE-eleyn—but to those less familiar with the language, there's no clear answer.) Any way you slice it, it doesn't roll off the tounge.
And the place doesn't exactly distinguish itself by calling its approach "seasonal, market fresh and farm influenced."
But Breuckelen does manage to stand out from the last few years' endless crop of locavore-friendly, tin-ceilinged eateries; it's something many of them are not. Namely, adult.
Walk in the door and you'll be greeted by a maître d'—in a suit. He'll ask if you have a reservation. (In Brooklyn!) He'll take your jacket. He'll seat you and pull out your chair.
Order a glass of wine, and a bottle is formally presented for your taste and approval. Get up for a moment, and a waiter will re-fold your napkin. Head out at the end of the evening, and expect a warm handshake.
Small formalities, to be sure. And this certainly isn't a formal restaurant, nothing stuffy or pompous about it; half the crowd is in blue jeans. But small formalities matter. They set the tone for a restaurant that takes itself seriously; where you can enjoy a meal and feel as if you're, well, out to dinner.
And the food? It's not perfect—but it's thoughtfully prepared, across-the-board enjoyable, and nearly free of gimmick or pretense. In short, it's food that predisposes you to like it.
An amuse bouche starts off the meal: on one visit, a single gently poached mussel with the fresh bite of seaweed and sesame seeds. Starters follow close behind: an intensely savory, silky cauliflower soup ($9) with smoked salmon and pickled apple a refreshing contrast on top; a pile of calamari ($14) crisp and tender and with a generous seasoning of lemon and salt. Had those tasty tendrils been properly warm when served, they would have been one of the best dishes of the night. The same could be said of the almost delicate sweetbreads, which had also spent a little too much time off the heat.
Salads were fresh and generously portioned: a roasted beet salad ($12) was enlivened by a blood orange vinaigrette, paired well with goat cheese and hazelnuts, though a funky note in the background—was that truffle oil?—was somewhat distracting. And while a shaved prosciutto di Parma ($14) plate seemed to sit somewhere between a salad and an antipasto platter, it was delicious enough that we didn't mind: tender cured ham, the nutty edge of manchego cheese, candied walnuts that are easy to pluck off the dish and pop back.
While the pastas are listed on the menu in the Italian style, between starters and entrees, don't be fooled into ordering a middle course—each pasta dish could suffice as a meal in itself. Spicy sausage rigatoni ($16) have more of the former than the latter; the sausage doesn't come in meat-sauce crumbles, but in enormous, juicy chunks that deserve top billing. With a simple oregano-laced tomato sauce, aged pecorino, and rigatoni that retain a bit of a bite, it's the sort of plate you want to dive into on a winter's night—hearty satisfaction. Where it's big and gutsy, the cappellini ($13) is subtle but equally powerful: dressed simply with olive oil, Meyer lemon, and chilis for a slow, burning heat.
Whereas those two were texturally all but perfect, the other pastas faltered a bit; heavy butternut squash gnocchi ($18) were enormous and doughy, even if they exhibited great flavor: brown butter, the sweet touch of pancetta, bitter greens. Less leaden (if a bit thin) was a wild mushroom risotto ($14) perfumed with the earthy funk of truffle, pea greens on top a fresh contrast, not just a decorative crown.
The heavier entrees, too, had smart, light touches. The double cut pork chop ($28), a Flinstonian cut that could have served two, had tender flesh and crisped, melt-on-the-tongue fat, a cipollini onion marmelade there to add sweetness and acid against the blue cheese, spinach, and risotto. It's a dish that cries for red wine, as is the five-spice duck breast ($26), with a crisped skin and a base of beautifully crusty chestnut spaetzle and smoky, fatty sausage. But the bouillabaise ($26) was no less substantial, particularly given the rouille crostini that perch on top. It's as composed a dish as any of the others—the striped bass given a gorgeous crust, not just chunks drowning in liquid; the shellfish tender, the broth a sultry, salty oceanic stew.
Desserts also mine the comfort food vein, though there's nothing all that memorable about them. A rustic apple torte ($8) has a flaky crust and just-tender apples, but there's not much more to say about it; and though the ice creams were each silky-smooth and intensely flavored, the three golf-ball scoops for $8 seemed something of an affront—particuarly given the relative values elsewhere on the menu.
It wasn't a meal without its imperfections, but it was food that disappeared in a flurry of forks and happy mouths, dishes you'd ask to be passed back around, food meant for the chill November night. As I walked around the back of the restaurant, the maître d' came up to ask me how I was enjoying my meal. "This is our tenth week," he told me. "We're trying to figure things out." It did seem that way—one didn't get the sense the kitchen had quite hit a rhythm—but they've already created a restaurant that's recommendable.
As we left, I glanced back at the handsome building, and watched through the picture window as a waitress poured wine for an older couple, chatting and laughing, easy smiles on all three faces. It's the sort of charming tableaux you see from the street and find yourself drawn to, wondering why the people inside seem so content. And it's easy to feel content at Breuckelen—a restaurant for meals that seem like occasions, a restaurant you can't help but root for.