It's not hard to find a place to eat in Williamsburg—but this was not always the case. In the late nineties, it seemed like there were two restaurants in Williamsburg: Peter Luger's and Diner. This was before the neighborhood was a hipster mecca bursting at the seams with restaurants and fine food shops, and Diner was just a little joint serving up seasonal fare and great burgers in a renovated dining car. Since opening in 1998, the owners of Diner have established something of an empire, opening a second restaurant and general store next door, Marlowe and Sons, and a butcher shop down the street, Marlowe and Daughters. I stopped in last week to see whether I could make a meal on $15.
Diner's menu is so local, so seasonal, so seemingly ever-changing that there are no traditional paper menus at the restaurant. Our waitress came by and scribbled down that night's options on our paper tablecloth. There were four appetizers and about the same number of entrees on offer. The tablecloth menu system works well enough—although we had to specifically ask for the prices of each item, information very important to someone dining on a budget. This should be part of the menu whether it's written on a tablecloth or a menu, and whether the customers are on a budget or not.
We started with the house-made Fettucine with Ricotta ($13). This modestly sized plate of pasta was spectacular; the noodles are made with swiss chard that not only gives them a bright green hue but also lends a palpable spiciness. The fettucine was tossed with sauteed ramps, spinach and pine nuts for a bit of crunch and topped with a dollop of fresh ricotta. It was well rounded, that rare pasta dish that doesn't feel too heavy.
We also tried the Kale Salad ($10), raw leaves of kale tossed in a lemon-heavy vinaigrette. The salad was topped with slices of Parmesan cheese and served on top of grilled slices of pear. Kale isn't my favorite salad green, but this salad's tart lemon dressing went beautifully with the caramelization on the grilled pears. The cheese, of course, didn't hurt things, and there were also a few toasted hazelnuts for crunch. Next up was the Lentil Salad ($10), lentils tossed with mustard greens, fennel fronds, golden raisins and toasted sliced almonds in a cumin-laced honey mustard dressing. Of the two salads we ordered, this one was the clear winner, with so many distinct flavors coming together beautifully on the plate.
The Sorrel Soup ($8) was a breathtaking presentation, but a little too salty for our taste. This creamy puree looked great, and we could detect a fresh sorrell flavor in there somewhere, but for the most part all we tasted was salt. If you are looking for a salt fix at Diner, go with an order of the Fries ($6), some of the best in the neighborhood. Thickly cut from fresh potatoes, these are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and just the right kind of salty.
Diner's appetizers are not throwaways; they're incredibly well thought-out constructions that put to use the best local ingredients at the kitchen's disposal. While these weren't the biggest portions, we walked away full and satisfied, all while staying within the Apps Only target price range—we spent $46 before tax and tip for the three of us. Diner isn't the newest, or the closest to the L train, but it's still hands down one of the best restaurants in Williamsburg.
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