284 Third Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11215 (b/n Carroll and President; map); 718-596-6560; thepinesbrooklyn.com
Service: Skilled and welcoming
Setting: Attractively "unfinished" Brooklyn space with a huge back garden (not for dining at the moment)
Compare It To: Battersby, Gwynnett Street
Must-Haves: Apples, agnolotti
Cost: Figure $30/head for food
I don't quite remember when the notion of an ambitious restaurant opening up in Gowanus ceased to seem strange. After the success of Four and Twenty Blackbirds, perhaps; or maybe around the time Roberta's became a picnic-tabled dining destination in Bushwick? Regardless, we're now at a time when a talented chef considers a restaurant a block from the canal a reasonable proposition. I'm loathe to call a neighborhood "the new" Williamsburg or "the new" Bushwick—are we really at the point where something can be the new Bushwick? Perhaps not—but Gowanus now has a restaurant that precedes your first course with an amuse-bouche.
The owners of The Pines have already planted their stake in the neighborhood, with the exceedingly good seafood shack Littleneck on the same short block. The newer venture, opened nearly a month ago, is in a much different mold. Instead of a staunchly traditional New England, The Pines is an eclectic sort of New American. Instead of familiar clam rolls and lobster, The Pines has ingredients laid out in descriptions like "Amaranth w/ nduja, maitake, goose berry." The chef, Angelo Romano, has come through Roberta's and the now-closed Masten Lake. It's the sort of often wildly original, anything-goes model of many Brooklyn restaurants these days—housemade this, backyard-grown that.
And to a large extent, it succeeds. My fear with restaurants that exhibit this sort of unpredictable menu form is that they'll echo the experience we had with Isa: wild creativity without editing, and without the chops to execute properly. For the most part, The Pines avoids these pitfalls. Where the menu is best, it is surprising without being perplexing, occasionally familiar ingredients deployed in novel ways.
Take the "Lettuce" ($12), for example, one of my favorite dishes on the menu. To me, it looks like a pretty unexciting deconstructed salad, a slightly fancied-up romaine wedge. But those bits that look like croutons? They're slowly rendered bits of guanciale, airy-light and dissolving between a crunch of the teeth to a pure bite of pig fat. Sound rich, against an eggy, oily dressing? It's egg yolk–based, for sure, but the yolks are tempered with heavy cream and then united with gelatin for a much less liquid, airier effect than you'd expect. A salad with a rich dressing and light crunch, but with the elements reversed. Novel and delicious.
The apple salad ($10) was another whose flavors were far more compelling then a glance would indicate. Its dressing is based on sheep's milk yogurt and milk and tastes vividly of it, with just a bit of salt and balsamic, a creamy, tangy counterpart to the apples. Raw hibiscus leaf contributes to the tartness. I couldn't stop thinking about how I'd eat these apples... I'd love yogurt-slathered Honeycrisps diced over a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, or layered on a crust for a savory take on a dessert pie. On their own, however, it's an excellent thing, all the easier to appreciate how well these flavors play together.
The purslane salad ($14) was one that I liked for the most part, the greens precisely dressed with rice vinegar and good olive oil, crunchy pistachios and a foam of whipped pistachio milk filling it out. And I'm all about lardo draped over any melon, and the chunks of compressed ogen melon worked well here. That said, the method of eating isn't quite clear. I liked the bites of melon-lardo, and purslane-pistachio, but when the elements aren't visually readable—was that saucelike pool lardo, or pistachio, or...? it wasn't clear at first—I wasn't quite sure how to eat it. Tasty nonetheless, but this was one case I felt something a little more ready-to-fork would've been appropriate. At The Pines, plating is often a bit creatively unstructured, elements displayed on their own; in some cases it works, in others it's a little perplexing.
We were quite fond of our meatier starter, a delicate, fatty pig's head testa ($12) with huckleberry, celery, and black pepper. The filone loaf is airy and flavorful in all the right ways, if toasted a bit too hard to allow for the melty crunch of pig on bread. Of the full bread plate ($4), it was the seeded wheat we loved, excellent with the caraway-flavored butter, though we wish it had been a bit softer and more spreadable. (If you're going with snacks to start, the $6 bowl of balsamic-dressed olives is almost comically large, not disappearing at a table of six despite our best efforts.)
I've rarely had a harder time deciding what to order than when looking at The Pines's pasta section. How do you choose between cavatelli with duck heart; pici with trotter ragu; garganelli with crab brodo, lamb's quarter, and preserved lemon; and agnolotti with smoked pork neck, mizuna, and quark? "It's trotter v. pork neck, I think," someone murmured at our table. "Who will win?" The neck did. Those agnolotti ($22) ended up being my favorite, bundles of fatty, tender pork with the smoke coming through faintly. The neck is deboned, cooked for 12 hours, then cold-smoked over pecan wood before it's whipped with straciatella, egg yolks, and pecorino for the filling. Focused, indulgent, and memorably tasty. I liked the straightforward meaty funk of the cavatelli with duck heart ($17) as well, though the pasta itself wasn't perfect, a bit stiff (as distinct from al dente). But the ragu spoke powerfully of duck, a roasted carcass simmered into a broth with wild leeks as the base of a sauce with tomatoes and duck heart. Pecorino cheese to finish.
I've gone though several stages of thought about the mains, which didn't grab me as much as some earlier dishes. On the one hand, I had at least minor critiques of each one. On the other hand, $21 for slow-cooked pork shoulder isn't bad at all. I liked the well-seasoned, tender flesh (brined, pressure-cooked, and pan-seared) with macadamia nuts and gooseberries. Not all our entrees were executed well, however. $17 for short rib may be less than I've paid in ages, but I found the meat itself quite over-salted and with too much naked fat—nearly half of some of the pieces, barely rendered fat clinging to small bits of meat. We're all for the fatty parts when done right, but this seemed like fat to the exclusion of all else. But the rest of the dish—sweet potato puree, wilted treviso, baby pencil leek—worked well.
The less meat-heavy, though by no means vegetarian, amaranth ($14) with maitake mushrooms and 'nduja was probably the best illustration of The Pines walking the border between interesting–good and interesting–just interesting. I quite enjoyed this porridge of sorts, the fine grain tasting strongly of pork and the 'nduja's various spices, with maitake mushrooms atop. (The gooseberries, on the other hand: I get why you'd want a little sharp tartness in there, but found them a little jarring.) Others found the whole composition perplexing. "I don't know what I'm eating here," mused one (generally adventurous) eater. Some dishes at The Pines just don't have clear analogues; had I asked the waitress to explain the dish before I ordered, I honestly have no idea what she would've told me. "Spicy pork porridge," maybe? I found that I liked the dish that appeared, but on a menu like this, it can be hard to gauge your own preferences.
Desserts, in sharp contrast, are pleasantly straightforward. I couldn't get enough of a banana gelato ($7) with 'Nilla wafers and caramelized banana slices; a whipped sheep's milk cheese, just lightly sweetened, added a creamy, tart element. The chocolate gelato ($7) was similarly technically good, rich with a flavor all chocolate, with chocolate shavings, butter cookie crumbles, and a plum granita—I liked the tart fruit on the chocolate, and the crunch the cookie lent.
And speaking of granita, The Pines presented one as an amuse bouche before the meal properly began: a Concord grape one with dried bits of the citrus Buddha's Hand. The flavors were powerful and focused, both the gesture and the preparation quite sophisticated. At its best moments, that's just how The Pines is—smartly conceived, powerfully flavored, a lot more ambitious than even the team's excellent clam shack.
The comparisons to be made are other small, quirky-menued Brooklyn joints like Battersby or Gwynnett Street. At Battersby, dishes surprised me and delighted almost without fail. Here there's a bit more variation. I'd say, at this point, that The Pines has that intention, if not necessarily the execution. But it's young yet; and what's already on the plate is promising indeed. And if I lived on Third Avenue? I'd be very happy to welcome it.