Battersby in Cobble Hill: Good Food Comes in Small Spaces
255 Smith Street, Brooklyn NY 11231 (b/n Douglass and Degraw; map); 718-852-8321; battersbybrooklyn.com
Service: Genial and knowledgable, shows genuine care
Setting: Tiny slim space with open kitchen
Compare It To: Gwynnett Street, Colonie
Must-Haves: Kale salad, gnocchi, Berkshire pork
Cost: Apps $10-12, "seconds" $13-19, mains $25-29
Seasonality, in a sense, is a no-brainer. You want to eat ripe heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with salt in late August and braised short ribs with stewed-down vegetables on a snowy December night.
But how about "food I want to eat on an early April evening of an unseasonably warm and early spring that's lagging a bit tonight, dammit, I didn't think I had to pull out my peacoat again"?
I didn't know, honestly. But Battersby on Brooklyn's Smith Street did. Translated into, well, plates of food, their take on the moment: favas and peas and ramps galore, a few heartier holdovers like kale, all with bright clean flavors—but let's be real, it'll be about 40° outside when you leave. So those gnocchi may taste light, but they swim in Parmesan cream; that may be a pile of greens under that modestly portioned Berkshire pork, but they're robed in a rich, appealingly oily pesto that you'll find a spoon to finish.
And damned if they weren't right.
Plenty of restaurants these days do the rotating menu thing, changing up at least a good portion of their dishes every night. But the downside, of course, is that you don't have much time to experiment to get something right.
What did our meal at Battersby tell me? That these chefs have dead-on intuition for how people want to be eating. That they seize on an impulse and cook it well—not just rushing vegetables with a 3-week season onto their menu, but preparing them as well as if they did it every day. And that flavor, balance, and execution all seem to matter enormously.
Joseph Ogrodnek (formerly the executive chef of Anella in Greenpoint) and Walker Stern (who spent time at The Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights) paired up to open Battersby, equal partners in the kitchen and in ownership—the classic "talented chef strikes out on his own" storyline, except there are two of them.
It's a small place for two chefs' ambitions. I admire the boldness of the person who looked at this raw space and said, "sure, we can seat and cook for 28 people here," because I don't think I could've laid out a takeout coffee shop in a room this small. The open kitchen, occupying barely more than a corner in the back, is about the size of that West Village room I rented as a young freelancer (which is to say, approximately 5% larger than the footprint of my twin bed). But it feels less cramped than it should, with a large bar sectioning things off a bit. And it helps that the servers are attentive enough that you don't feel lost in the squish.
Reading reviews elsewhere suggests that this complimentary bread course has, at other times, been a "crusty flatbread," but I have a hard time believing that any flatbread could compare to what we were served. Generous with salt, olive oil, and rosemary, the loaf has a beautiful hole structure and an internal elasticity that makes you think a baker sort of baker was involved. It's impressive, and more to the point delicious, particularly with olive oil-topped ricotta that's texturally closer to mascarpone.
Battersby's is the third kale salad with a) both raw and fried kale and b) fish sauce in the dressing that I've had recently; and I couldn't possibly pick a favorite. (Chuko and Talde, you're in good company.) If this becomes the new beet-and-goat cheese on menus across the country, I'd be all in favor.
Their kale salad ($10) has long, sheetlike crisps of kale, downright delicate, that shatter into shards as you bite in. (I found myself wanting to pluck them off and eat them first, like when you sneak a French fry from your burger plate before everyone else's entrées arrive.) Those flash-fried kale petals are perched atop a salad of raw kale, daikon, and a chili-spiked, fish sauce-graced sweet and savory vinaigrette that mingles with Thai basil. The whole effect is deeply aromatic while not masking the satisfying flavors of the kale itself. I'll stop talking about this salad, other than to say: order it.
The pastured hen egg ($12), a warm, comforting bowl of mushrooms (hedgehog mushrooms, shiitake, trumpet royale) and spinach with an egg on top, was the sort of thing I'd love for a brunch that feels satisfying but not decadent. Ours was a touch undersalted, and refined though the technique seemed, the impression was "this is an enjoyable bowl of food" rather than "this is a brilliant dish." Still, I'd happily eat it again.
But I'd rather eat the veal sweetbreads a la Meunière ($14). Any restaurant turning out sub-par sweetbreads—and there are many in this city—should pay Battersby a visit. These are glossy enough to slide over the tongue, creamy and satisfying, their richness amplified by a classic Meunière, unabashed brown butter cut with lemon and capers just so. Around the edges come leaves of Caesar-topped romaine, anchovy breadcrumbs crumbled right on there. (I suppose a fork and knife would be appropriate, but don't you kind of want to eat those salad fingers with your fingers?) I'm now imagining Caesar salads across the country—with chicken + $2.99, with shrimp + $4.99—with a veal sweetbreads option tacked on there.
Many pastas are available in both small and large portions, primi-style or as entrees. We tried both in smaller portions, the better to taste more; but if we'd gotten a large bowl of the gnocchi ($14 small, pictured; $19 large), it would've disappeared almost as quickly as this small one. Any gnocchi dish with good color on each tiny dumpling earns immediate points from us. The best bite is one with both peas and ramps, swiped up with Parmesan cream—the vibrance of spring with the warmth of hearty potato and cheese. If we had one quibble, we'd say that the peas were not quite sweet enough to earn a co-starring role alongside the irresistible ramps. But I'd order it again in a heartbeat.
The spaghetti ($14 small, pictured; $19 large) I would, too, though perhaps to share. (One of our chatty, personable servers recommended it as "phenomenal, but you have to like uni.") And that's pretty accurate. The rough-edged spaghetti, made in-house as are all of their pastas, is cloaked in a sauce of garlic, chili, and shrimp broth with uni effectively melted right in, the funk of the sea clinging to each strand, with a soft cut draped over the whole lot. Breadcrumbs perk up the texture a bit, a crunchy break from the slick, creamy dish. (Stir well for best effect.) Even an uni lover may be daunted by a large bowl; for a few bites, however, it's quite a special thing.
How often, in these reviews, do we note that the earlier courses are more inventive and simply better than the later ones? That was the case at Battersby, though the bar was set high enough that the entrées were still quite enjoyable. On the plate of Berkshire pork ($27), I couldn't stop eating the green jumble underneath, fava beans together with basil, parsley, dandelion greens, and arugula; piquillo peppers provide the contrast. The pork itself was not quite memorable against it, though it was well-cooked and elegantly sliced; that's more just a testament to how awesome those vegetables were. We'd order anything with this pesto again.
Duck breast ($28) with foie gras tortellini sounds heavy, no? It's brought back to spring with ramps; and a konbu-based consommé poured over the top. Here was one dish where we appreciated the elements but didn't quite see the dish as a whole. How do the foie tortellini relate to the lighter, cleaner flavors elsewhere? Is the consommé intended to be scooped up with the pasta and greens, and if so, why wasn't a spoon provided? These questions occurred to us as we ate. Still, you know what we like? Duck. And foie.
From the perspective of a two-man show, Battersby's desserts are admirable. When following so many compelling dishes, they don't quite keep up. Who, though, is critical when a chocolate-caramel tart ($6) lands on the table? Not particularly novel, but you have to be pretty cerebral to think about novelty when enjoying a chocolate ganache atop salty caramel and a crumbly crust. The pear clafoutis ($6), similarly: not nearly eggy enough to say "clafoutis" to us, but as a pleasant fruit-topped end to the meal? No complaints.
Trumpeting one's own "We love our farmers!" and "We make everything ourselves!" credentials is par for the course these days. But what Battersby shows is that restaurants don't need to puff up their own chests to cook this way. And really, what do those labels mean anymore in American food culture? I was at a [major frozen food company brand redacted] focus group last year in which they tested several "farm to table"-themed commercials on us. Domino's has an "artisanal" pizza, Wendy's an "artisanal" egg sandwich. In chats after the meal, the Battersby folks certainly talked up their local vegetable man and their dedication to making all the pasta in house. But as you eat your meal, they let you trust that that's their mindset. They don't hammer it in.
Seasonality and careful sourcing weren't invented in Brooklyn in the early aughts (nor by Chez Panisse a few decades before, for that matter). It's just a smart way to serve food. And Battersby is a smart restaurant indeed.