Much Is Well at Allswell, A Gastropub in Williamsburg
124 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (at North 10th St; map); 347-799-2743; allswellnyc.tumblr.com/
Service: Welcoming, prompt, helpful
Must-Haves: Ricotta, most fried things
Cost: Snacks up to $6, apps up to $14, entrees up to
We try to strike some balance in the reviews we write, which generally means putting a quota on "rustic Italian West Village restaurants" (okay, we're pretty bad at that one) or "trendy new Brooklyn openings." Which means that there are a decent number of Brooklyn restaurants that fall through the cracks. We hadn't made it out to Allswell, on Williamsburg's Bedford Avenue, until recently—but we're glad we finally did.
Chef Nate Smith, formerly of the Spotted Pig, opened Dean Street in my neighborhood of Prospect Heights about a year and a half ago, and I had just enough time to stop by on a preliminary visit, and order two promising plates, when he picked up and left the restaurant. So I was curious to see where he'd land next.
It's a restaurant that's friendly to drinkers—in the quality of cocktails, the happy hour specials (discounted shot-and-beer? $1 oysters? Yes, please) and the happy hour and late-night food menus. Let's start with those cocktails, a list that runs toward the boozy (the lightest drink, dubbed "Careless Carrie," includes gin, Averna, and Poire Williams along with its lemon, cucumber, and soda) and current, inasmuch as current means classic profiles. You'll see lots of vermouth and amari and variations on known drinks. The "I Got Lillet'd" ($11; come on, how can you resist ordering that) balances a healthy pour of mezcal with Lillet Blanc, with grapefruit, honey, and Angostura bitters to round it out. A Kingston Negroni ($11) swaps out gin for the warming, rich Smith & Cross "Navy Strength" rum, with the expected Campari, and Dolin rouge as the vermouth. A White Rabbit ($11)—gin, Salers Gentiane, and Dolin Blanc—was a lighter, sharper take on the spirit–vermouth–aperitif situation. All three, I'd drink again, and feel fortunate that there are plenty of small plates I'd pair with them. Allswell is a place I can easily imagine passing a night happy with nothing more than a few drinks and a few snacks. (Not that there aren't larger plates worth ordering as well.)
On any given night, there will be a number of items that emerge golden brown from the fryer. If our experience is any indication, most of them will be a great bet. Anchovy fritters ($5) sandwich sage leaves around the fish, plump and crisp and salty in the sort of batter you'd use for fish and chips. They disappeared within seconds of landing on our table. Tiny fried cornichon nuggets ($5) did, too, panko crusted with blue cheese dip. Tripe chips ($6) varied in texture, but all gave a substantial crunch (some had more stretchy, gelatinous innards than others.)
Delicata squash ($11) steams beneath its crackling tempura shell, only made more appealing with honey and a shower of grated Pecorino. And a fried calamari roll ($6), on the happy hour menu, was a highlight of the evening. Piled on a sesame seed bun with tartar sauce and lettuce, it made for an excellent sandwich that would've sufficed as a plate without the bun, too. (I'd come back and eat it either way.) It's worth noting that their fried dishes vary considerably—every one has a different coating. There's buttermilk–flour dip on the calamari, panko on the pickles, batter on the fish, a light flour dusting on tripe, tempura on the squash—it's not the kind of restaurant where everything is a uniform, crunchy golden brown. It's much more impressive than that.
We preferred it to a housemade sausage roll ($6)—of the "sausage, on roll" sort, not the British pastry-wrapped sort. The flavors (pork meets spice) and various components (caramelized onions, mustard) were dead-on, but the texture was a little dry and a little mealy. As a $6 bar snack, no complaints, but it lacked the precision some other dishes showed.
For the most part, this sort of casual-done-right fare ended up being Allswell's biggest strength—though plenty of less, er, crispy-salty-golden plates fared well, too. "Potted duck" ($11), a more-than-sufficient cap of pure melty fat atop well-seasoned duck rillettes, was a mighty tasty thing to slather on bread, and a parsley-tomato salad, particularly with mid-September's exquisite sweet tomatoes, a lovely thing to cut the richness with. (All the breads are made in-house, and across the board they're excellent. Plenty of restaurants seem to bake just for the sake of doing so; at Allswell, the quality justifies the effort.)
You'll find their bread too on a plate with silky, small-curd ricotta ($5; which would likely be my first repeat order) and as the bun to every sandwich like dish. It works beautifully on the burger ($14, +$2 for cheese). The dry-aged meat has a pronounced funk and arrives drippingly juicy; some in our group found the texture lacking ("a little bouncy, like a sausage" was one comment) but I found the flavors compelling enough, and the price fair enough, that I'd re-order. The fries lacked the crisp crust I'd want from specimens this thick (and which, curiously, nearly other fried item had).
As I've seen with other Brooklyn restaurants, some prices seem quite gentle while others don't quite justify themselves. I was all about the beet and plum salad with gorgonzola and walnuts and puntarelle, for instance—but $14? Per dollar, I'd much rather order the equally tasty cardoon & chili soup ($8), rich and earthy and punctuated by a drizzle of olive oil on top.
The Allswell menu changes frequently enough that I couldn't feel confident in its return, but bucatini ($16), in a briny sauce of capers, peppers, and tomatoes, is another dish I'd happily eat again. The skate wing ($25) sported a delicate crisp over steamy, moist flesh, draped over a compelling farro-corn base with impossibly sweet segments of tomato. And while a well-seasoned medium-rare flatiron steak ($24) with carrot purée and sautéed lacinato kale isn't exactly novel, I'd still be happy with it for dinner if it appeared in front of me.
Desserts were more or less straightforward, all with redeeming elements, but none spot-on. We loved the filling of an apple raspberry pie ($7), an appropriate bridge between summer and fall, but the end crust was so tough it couldn't be cut with a fork; much the same was true of a plum tart ($7)—beautiful fruit, crust that didn't quite match. (On both, the lusciously buttery whipped cream was worth eating on its own.) A chocolate molasses cake ($7) succeeded mainly by virtue of the salted caramel ice cream on top, which improved the slightly dry cake dramatically once it soaked in.
There are plenty of Spotted Pig comparisons to be made: the menu, which I'd call nose-to-tail, fryer-heavy, but strongly seasonal fare; in the cocktail list, far more ambitious (and well-executed) than I'd expected; and in the vibe, a vaguely pubby but obviously New York, appealing to an all-night crowd.
I wouldn't by any means call it a destination restaurant, in the way I would consider the Pig. But as an everyday place, there's a lot to like. It's occasionally ambitious in the kitchen, and many of those efforts pay off. And it's a good-natured place, welcoming in a way that many Brooklyn restaurants of its ilk just aren't. Smith's last short-lived project, Dean Street, was just a few blocks from me; heading to Allswell, I'm sad the former didn't work out. Because this is the sort of neighborhood restaurant where, if not perfect, I find a lot to appreciate. If I lived near it, I'd be there quite a bit.