In sixteen months of writing this column, we've never had either of these experiences before. First, we were served an amuse bouche. Second, the restaurant stayed empty for the entire time we were there. Perhaps it was the hour (circa 7 PM) or the day of the week (Wednesday). Perhaps it's the location, an exposed corner near the meeting point of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Several paces away from the more popular Franklin Street, it's where wind comes to catch up on the news with other wind. Whatever the reason, it's a shame, as Calyer deserves crowds.
Our server, clad in both plaid and argyle, explained the menu. It's comprised of small plates to share, so he recommended three per person. We ordered five in total and left stuffed. With one exception, the Spanish-inflected food seemed like a great deal for the price.
To start, the amuse: a quivering dollop of pear jelly topped with pistachios, served on spoons and cloth napkins. It was followed by roasted beets ($9), splashing about in a cream-free, celery root purée, a smooth counterpoint to the salad's abundant acidity. The other components of this lovely-looking dish, including Granny Smith apples and onion escabeche, stood up or leaned, as if an Alexander Calder mobile had fallen from the sky and landed artfully at our table.
The oxtail arepa ($15) seemed like a lot for a little. (We foolishly assumed that we'd be getting several arepas for that price.) We liked the way this dish shows breadth—at Calyer, Spanish food means more than just goodies from the Mediterranean. Although the oxtail had a pleasant, slow-cooked, beefy stringiness, the cornmeal patties cracked apart, causing the queso fresco, fried plantains, and jalapeno relish to slop out after one bite. And while we're complaining, we should mention that the server neglected to change our little plates or utensils between courses. Delightful remnants of pickled onions or oxtail became less so as they mixed with bits from other dishes.
A seemingly bottomless bowl of roasted Brussel sprouts ($11) included culantro (an herb similar to cilantro), garlic, and chicken sausage. If this dish were grammar, then the al dente sprouts, exuding cabbage flavor, offered a great crunchy sentence, with a lot of alliteration. The crumbles of sausage acted as commas, forcing you to occasionally pause, breath in, be meaty. And the culantro and garlic served as end stops, lending a finishing, sharp touch.
A hunk of pork belly ($13), maybe a touch overdone, was nonetheless redolent of porkiness. It sat atop creamed sweet potatoes stained green by sorrel, which made a soup at the bottom of the bowl. Alongside, crispy plantains made for unusual croutons.
The char ($15) had been poached in olive oil until its layers of pink glistened suggestively. Sprinkles of flaky salt really made the fish, as did a curl of fried scales. The salad of cipollini (also known as wild onions), jicama, and glazed sunchokes, cut to look like wood chips, brought the sea to land. Calling this a play on surf and turf might go too far, but the dish's components forced us to contemplate it as a possibility.
Generally, though, Calyer embraces the nautical. The green ceiling comes to a slight peak, like the upside down of a boat's hull, while a great big brass clock ticks the time at the bar. At the end of the meal, a temporary tattoo and a line drawing of a lighthouse appear with your bill. "Look sharp all of ye!," the tat might say, or "Tis better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation." Thankfully, Calyer looks sharp and (mostly) succeeds in originality. It's best for: a date with an explorer.