Potlikker in Williamsburg: Smart Comfort Food That Knows How To Charm
338 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (b/n 4th and 3rd Streets; map); 718-388-9808; potlikkerbrooklyn.com
Service: Friendly, accommodating, and professional
Setting: Cozy but sleek and airy, American diner meets bistro
Compare It To: Battersby
Must-Haves: Dutch pancake, Peaches roasted in duck fat, Diver scallops
Cost: Appetizers: $8 to $14; Small plates: $14 to $16; Mains: $22 to $24
Before dinner, we passed by a bakery that smelled nice enough to give us pause. Inside we spent some idle moments looking over the display. "Everything here is all vegan," said the twentysomething at the register, his expression neither a smirk nor a snear, but hardly a smile. "It's all, like, Turkish inspired." I took a closer look at the all-too-Williamsburg quinoa dish and the Israeli couscous, and was ready to go.
And then we stepped into Potlikker. And were greeted by smiles: professional, friendly, not crushingly earnest or larded with irony. And we proceeded to have a meal that, if not perfect, sent us into that golden summer evening with smiles of our own. We were fed well, and treated very well, like proper adults at a restaurant where the staff knows how to take care of you and not make a big deal of it. This should not be an exceptional experience, but it's rarer than it ought to be. Potlikker feels like a breath of fresh air, a neighborhood restaurant unencumbered by overthought concepts, underdelivered flavors, and chilly service.
It is for Williamsburg what Battersby is for Cobble Hill; the similarities are so striking it's hard not to mention them. Both are friendly, neighborhood-oriented spots in small spaces (Battersby seats 28; Potlikker 40). Both are adherents to the law of house-made everything, but don't need to brag about it, and only mention it if you care to ask ("We make everything here," our server answered when asked about the lovely bread. A quick smile, a shrug, and then he moved on.). And both practice seasonal cooking to the exclusion of all else, not for any need to make a statement, but because it just makes good sense to serve good food when it's at its flavorful best.
But if Battersby chefs Joseph Ogrodnek and Walker Stern deliver a razor-sharp slice of the season right then and there, Potlikker's Liza Queen (whose previous restaurant Queen's Hideaway was doing all of this back in 2005) cooks more broadly. Her menu draws inspiration from crab boils to home-cooked Southern staples to farmers' market Italian-ish. Her dishes are more rustic, but lie at the spiffiest intersection of American diner and bistro, smart comfort food that's not too in its own head. The kind of joyful, pleasurable eating we find ourselves so often craving.
Such as the Dutch pancake with fried oysters ($12), a sweetish, eggy, crisp-edged Dutch baby filled with smoky pepper jelly, bright Capri goat cheese, lardons of Benton's bacon, and two plump fried oysters, a touch of brine and added crunch to all the smoke and sweet. It's balanced well by a salad of Chilled plums, lemon cucumbers, and radishes ($7), which is cool and crisp, the clean lemon ginger dressing straightforward but not dull. There's a Japanese palate-cleansing feeling to it, unexpected but not unwelcome.
Other "Appetizers and Salads" can be a pleasure to eat but a challenge to understand. Candy-sweet Poached figs ($11) in a Benton's ham broth are gorgeous, as are the grilled radicchio leaves that join them. But how do you eat it all? With a spoon for the broth? A knife for the unwieldy lettuce? And where did that hunk of blue cheese come from? "How does this work?" one dining companion asked. I'm still figuring that out.
We preferred the Peaches roasted in duck fat ($14), which comes with a cloud-like chicken liver mousse, a sharp, caramelly shallot agrodolce, and thin-sliced crostini. That bread is worth an extra $2 order for a side, with a light open crumb and a crackly crust.
Sharing your meal is the best way to eat at Potlikker. The menu is two-thirds small but substantial plates (no precious two-biters here), bold in flavor but perhaps a little much to tackle solo. That mousse is great, but rich, and finishing the pot of dark, slick shallots is enough to fill your flavor quota for the meal. Likewise: the End of Summer fresh pasta ($16), uneven spaghetti in a thick puttanesca-ish sauce heavy on the tomato and olive. The pasta may be cooked a little past al dente, and the sauce (a hair too salty for some) is thick and heavy handed, but in between bites of crisp chilled plum and fried oyster pancake, it's a warm burst of pleasure.
It's a better option than the Blistered shishito and fushimi peppers ($15). We loved dipping the fried cubes of Monterey jack in the pungent tomatillo relish, and the olive oily crackers dusted with chili were hoarded throughout the meal. But these are not all items that structurally go together, and the inclusion of cherry tomatoes, limp fried peppers, and stringy okra don't help matters. Again, we thought—how do we eat this?
So it goes with the less successful plates at Potlikker. Don't get me wrong: the flavors Queen wields are sharp and clear. Her peaches are as good as we've had all summer; tomato, olive, and anchovy are as bright/sweet/salty as you could hope for. You just can't always say the same about the execution. Adventurous, whimsical, and tasty yes, but that lack of restraint, those creeping inessential elements, make some of these dishes a little more muddled than we'd like. But that's okay, because there's plenty to enjoy in them, and their flaws are mostly easy to forgive. Eating here encourages a generous spirit.
If you want a more conventional single-serving meal, Potlikker isn't another one of those restaurants where the best bites end at the small plates. But our mid-$20 mains weren't without their issues. Take the Diver scallops in shellfish brodo ($24), where the the little mollusk jewels are glassy soft beneath their deep, satisfying sear. The brodo, more like a thicker bisque, is gorgeous: buttery and intense with the essence of lobster and shrimp. But what do the fried tortilla strips on top add? And how should we eat the chewy, much less flavorful corn on the cobb, swimming in the sauce?
Or a golden Brick chicken ($22) with shatter-crisp skin and juicy, tender flesh. Does it need a mop of lettuce on top slowly softening that perfect skin? Does the summer squash risotto (with some disturbingly crunchy grains) really need such a strong truffle butter when the chicken tastes so good?
Still, the proteins and more successful accents make them worth ordering. I can't say the same about the Sirloin cube steak with corncakes ($22). We devoured the cakes: fluffy and plenty corny and not too sweet. But the steak falters here, more salty than beefy, cooked to a just-too-dry medium well.
If you order from the full range of the menu, you'll have had three courses by the time you get to dessert. So the sweets are straightforward and comforting, like a crowd-pleasing Chocolate tart ($8) with a clean, punchy ganache and a salty-sweet pretzel streusel. Order it over the Donuts & Peaches ($7), which has a slurpable caramel crème anglaise but heavy, dense dough fritters that don't quite measure up.
Potlikker is a restaurant that knows exactly what it's doing and how to do it. Liza Queen is cooking for her neighbors, making smart, friendly food that needs no dressing up but serves well on date nights, celebrations, and plain lazy evenings where you want to be taken care of by a restaurant dedicated to making you happy. It sits firmly in the new-ish class of Brooklyn restaurants that take dining out more seriously but at comfortable price points, and if it's not talked about as much as others, that should only make it easier to get a table. Your meal at Potlikker may not be flawless, but it'll be presented with grace and charm to spare, an experience that's just what a neighborhood restaurant should be.
I'm not a neighbor there, but I'll go to feel like one.