312 Graham Avenue, New York, NY 11211 (between Devoe and Ainslie; map); gwynnettst.com
Service: Very knowledgeable and genuinely excited about the food and space. Long wait between courses when busy.
Setting: Polished but comfortable.
Must-Haves: Roasted Maitake with Lardo, Whiskey Bread, Duck, Coconut Dessert
Cost:Appetizers $5 to $12, Mains $17 to $30
Let's call it the trickle-down effect of modern cuisine. Techniques and concepts that only a few years ago were reserved for the few-and-far-between temples of molecular gastronomy (please don't call it that, say its practitioners) have entered their second and third generations. Gwynnett Street, a new mid-range restaurant on Graham Ave in Williamsburg was opened by two such second-generation modern chefs. Sous Chef Owen Clark (29) and Executive Chef Justin Hillbert (32) first met while working under Alex Stupak and Wylie Dufresne at wd~50. Clark then went on to Sous-Chef at Blue Hill for two years while Hilbert spent a year at Mugaritz in Spain. They teamed up again to open Gwynnett Street.
So what happens when two young chefs with serious modern cooking chops team up with a young, insightful wine director to open a restaurant in Williamsburg? It could be a recipe for a navel-gazing, ego-stoked disaster. Or it could be Gwynnett St., a delightfully unpretentious—yet thoroughly Brooklyn—restaurant that aspires to be a great neighborhood spot but winds up being much, much more. What they didn't do was open a clone of their mentors' restaurants. Rather, they've scaled back, selectively using modern techniques—say, a deeper understanding of slow cooking or gels and emulsions, or relying on non-traditional flavorings and pairings—to come up with a cuisine that's at once bold and exciting, yet truly satisfying and comfortable.
The space, all bricks and fireplace, is cozy and warm but refined enough that I'd happily call this my local weeknight spot or a special date-night destination. Service—particularly food pacing—can be a bit leisurely at times, but that's to be expected at a newly opened restaurant.
Start with an exceptionally buttery and crisp version of classic Irish Whiskey Bread ($5). It eats like a giant biscuit and comes to the table hot enough to melt the cultured butter you'll want to slather on.
Anyone who's eaten Wylie Dufresne's food at wd~50 knows that he's a master of ingredients, using flavors that sound odd on paper but are brought together so masterfully that you could be convinced that chocolate, black beans, and soy have always gone together. Hilbert's combinations are a little more traditional, but a salad of raw Bok Choy ($10) with grapefruit and whipped feta reads like the world's most interesting Caesar salad on the palate. It's a break from convention that feels totally natural.
I'm a sucker for Slow Poached Eggs ($12), and Gwynnett St.'s gets high marks. It sits on top of buttery beans, and waits to be broken and swirled into a DIY sauce. Crisp slices of pork shatter as you bite them. Pro-tip: scoop the beans and eggs onto the pork chips for easy delivery.
Maitake Mushroom, creamy onion, rosemary and lardo ($10) is a stunner of a dish. A whole, fragrant hen-of-the-woods mushroom comes as if sprouting out of the plate in a pool of sweet, mild, and buttery puréed onion, its whispy stalks in varying shades of brown with varying levels of crispness. A paper thin veil of translucent cured pork lardo draped over the top melts in and around the delicate fronds of mushroom—pork-perfumed and savory.
Cocktails from their small but well-planned list are good enough to carry you through appetizers. I particularly enjoyed The Second Year ($10). Old Overholt rye, Cynar, and Punt E Mes form the base of this strong, stirred cocktail sweetened with a touch of honey syrup. That said, the wine list is worth a look as well.
How often do you check wine list prices when picking a dining destination? I often find myself out at what seems to be a reasonably priced dinner, only to be slammed by drink costs. Wine director and owner Carl McCoy, formerly the wine director of Esca, made it a point to select bottles that not only match food in flavor, but in price. About a third of the list sells for under $40 with bottles starting at $24 and glasses starting at $6. It's hard to pass up on the rich, silky Cabernet Franc from Long Island's Bedell Cellars at only $40.
Sea Scallops ($25) are served with a tangle of black trumpets and a creamy celery root purée. They come with a crusty, sweet sear and a just-warm center. Perfectly cooked meat is a theme that continues with the Amish Chicken ($18), a breast moist enough to make you swear off dark meat. It carries a hint of smoke from a burnt hay brine.
There's great flavor in the Almond Tofu ($17) but I wasn't crazy about the creaminess that the kudzu starch used to set it imparts. Still, far more thought went into this composition than your average vegetarian offering. With a bit more crispness it would have rivaled some of the meat dishes.
I had to try the Duck Breast ($26) three separate times before confirming that the amazing first taste I had wasn't just a fluke. It's incredibly tender with a rich texture that melts on your tongue in a wash of duckiness—like the kobe beef of duck. It's pan-roasted to a rosy medium-rare, the crisp skin melting into the meat, which has been brined with burnt citrus and spices, a move which accentuates the duck's natural gaminess. The breast is nestled among seared brussels sprouts tossed with candied kumquat rinds. Duck and citrus have never been happier together.
That I chose to repeat my tasting of the duck instead of going for the equally tempting Prime Beef Ribeye Cap ($30) with pickled bone marrow is an indicator that either the duck is great, or I'm losing my mind.
Four desserts ($9 each) show some definite Alex Stupak influence in their composition and unique flavor combinations. Coconut, Malt, Barley and Pomegranate is a thick-yet-light coconut dessert somewhere between a panna cotta and a mousse. It gets drizzled with pomegranate molasses and covered with fresh pomegranate seeds and coconut powder. Other desserts combine mango and parsnip, chocolate and black currants, or tangerines with juniper.
The most fun part of my meal was in fact our server, who got visibly excited whenever he saw us passing plates or taking bites from each others dishes. "You guys really know how to eat right. Chef will love that," he told us. It sums up the restaurant for me. When the front of the house takes that much pride in what they're serving and is visibly happy that we're enjoying ourselves, it's a safe bet that the kitchen is even more serious about the customer's happiness. Too often restaurants are about the chef. At Gwynnett Street, they never stray from the real goal: the diner's pleasure.
Check out the slideshow for a look at some more of their dishes and drinks.