A Hamburger Today
Runner & Stone Bakery and Restaurant: Too Much Too Fast, But With Great Bread
Runner & Stone
285 Third Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215 (b/n Carroll and President; map); 718-576-3360; runnerandstone.com
Setting: High ceilings and bright open spaces with warm wood accents.
Service: Professional and warm but not overly familiar.
Must-Haves: Any and all bread, duck pastrami.
Cost: Appetizers $7 to $9; pastas $11 to $17; mains $16 to $24.
Recommendation: A friendly neighborhood addition best for bread and pastries right now.
This is a Brooklyn restaurant story we've heard before, but not quite.
Because Runner & Stone in the Gowanus has more going on. It opened in December as a bakery and patisserie serving breakfast and lunch. Dinner launched soon after. There is also brunch. Oh, and a full bar. For a restaurant open for less than three months, that's no small achievement.
We've already written about former Per Se head baker Peter Endriss's breads, which are spare but precise in their use of whole grains, natural sourdoughs, and bold ingredients. The pastries are serious too, not just a bread baker's afterthought.
But unanswered is how a meal from Executive Chef Chris Pizzulli stacks up to the bakery counter. Runner & Stone is, after all, designed as a restaurant. And it's an attractive one, with high ceilings, heavy wood tables, and a cleaner, more grown up aesthetic than so many of the young Brooklyn restaurants written about today. The menu is also more mature, with conventional appetizers, mid-course pastas, and entrées; no "small plates meant for sharing." It's the neighborhood spot where your parents can navigate the menu on their own.
By way of an answer, "neighborhood restaurant" is the best way to think of Runner & Stone's dinner service, for now at least in its youth. Though Endriss's breads are destination-worthy items, Pizzulli's menu, which strikes a careful balance between invention and restraint—doesn't quite match up.
I found the most memorable bites in the appetizers, such as the fried cannellini beans tossed with a cumin vinaigrette in a boldly seasoned Escarole Salad ($7). "I'm frying all my beans from now on," a dining companion said, and after a taste of their crackly skins and creamy innards, one could see them becoming the new crouton.
Thick-cut Duck Pastrami ($9) is also well worth an order: its pepper and coriander rub gentle so the duck remains sweet, with creamy fat against bracing beer mustard. Were it stacked on rye and served as a sandwich by day, I'd call it lunch on every trip to the Gowanus. We preferred both of those dishes to Grappa-Cured Striped Bass ($9), which showcases pleasurably salty fish and crisp fennel, but with less charming delicacy.
There are four pastas on the menu, portioned and priced between the appetizers and mains. They sound enticing—cabbage with smoked sausage, tomato with buttery snails—but they don't always deliver. Red Cabbage Gnocchi ($11) came gummy and bland despite fatty nubs of crisply rendered sausage, while Spaghetti alla Chitarra ($14) was so firm and smooth-edged that the pasta left its tomato ragù (and snails) behind.
Grano Arso Fettucine ($14), fresh pasta made with "burnt" flour, does achieve the depth of flavor we expected, backed by earthy mushrooms and duck sausage. But it does so with overcooked pasta and a thin sauce that verges on broth. (Pro-tip: use that bread basket.) There's cleverness in these dishes, but not technical fluency; we wonder why they occupy a whole section of the menu.
So it may be best to bypass pasta and head straight to the mains, which are more conventional and safer bets. Pancetta-Wrapped Fish (MP), pollock on our visit, is perfectly tender beneath its crisp pork casing, though perhaps over-reliant on the cured meat for its flavor. Roasted Chicken ($16) needs no such help, with sweet flesh and salty crisp skin, though accompanying buckwheat dumplings are gummy and underseasoned, and look, there's that sea of mushroom broth again, threatening to sog up the skin with every turn of the knife. A side of Ginger Glazed Carrots ($5) is candy-sweet but surprisingly refreshing, though also more brothy than "glazed" would suggest.
Dessert is a mixed bag: I'd order the Rye Brownie ($8) again for its crisp edges and caraway-flavored fudgey center, and for the creamy rye whiskey ice cream that doesn't fool around. But a Lemon Trifle ($8) is too sweet and overly dense, thick lemon curd obscuring slight rounds of pistachio cake.
Shortly before dessert we asked for yet another refill of the excellent bread—airy sourdough baguettes and meaty ryes—which succeeded throughout the meal in smoothing over some of the menu's missteps. Which makes me wonder: does Runner & Stone need to be an all-day restaurant so soon in its life? If its greatest strength lies in bread, pastry, and lunches based on them, perhaps that should be its focus for the moment. (The dinner menu's problems are all fixable with time.)
But with that said, I can't deny how charming the restaurant can be. There's a touch of Per Se in the service, which is professional and attentive, warm but not overly familiar. If I lived in the neighborhood and wanted to be treated like a dinner guest, Runner & Stone is where I'd go.
Compare that to Third Avenue's other talked-about newcomer, The Pines, which is right across the street. There you can pay $20 for cubes of pale pork on a plate with less warm, slightly hipper than thou service. Runner & Stone seems more dedicated to making eating out feel special, and it does so with the understanding that good food is only part of that formula.
For now it may be best to take Runner & Stone slow: go for bread and lunch while the dinner menu improves. In the meantime there's great bread to eat, and a friendly vibe that makes the place a happy addition to the neighborhood.