Nitehawk Cinema Cafe
136 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (between Berry and Wythe; map); nitehawkcinema.com
Service: Still unsteady
Setting: Dark but friendly
Must-Haves: Nitehawk Queso, Nitehawk Popcorn
Cost: Appetizers $4-9, Mains and Salads $10-14
Last time Michelin-starred chef Saul Bolton of Boerum Hill restaurant Saul opened a new venue, he wowed us with The Vanderbilt, a classy pub-cum-cocktail bar serving great small plates and charcuterie with nothing over $16. Think of it as Saul Lite: smaller dishes, snackier food, much cheaper. This is the kind of chef I really like: one who's got talent, vision, and the chops to pull it off, but doesn't take himself so seriously that he can't fry the occasional chicken wing.
But he's now going one step further: designing the menu at the café attached to new Williamsburg movie theater Nitehawk Cinema. As befits the venue, this time Bolton is pulling out all stops with his takes on low-brow snack foods like popcorn and cheese dip. Even better, it's not only served in a café and bar setting, but you can actually order the full menu while watching a movie. Now here's a chef who knows what fun food is supposed to be!
And good news: it's almost all insanely snackable stuff.
Anyone else seriously into gooey cheese dip? Chef Bolton knows how to melt queso, as is readily apparent in his Queso Dip ($6.50 w/ scallions and cilantro), which is as creamy as Velveeta but with a significant cheesy tang. Add guacamole for $1.50, or go all out with hunks of chorizo, black beans, and guacamole for $9. It comes with tortilla chips, and may well rival popcorn as Best Movie Snack Ever.
Speaking of popcorn, you can get the regular stuff ($4/small, $5/large) at prices that are less-than-your-average-NY-multiplex, or even better, get it Mexican street-corn style seasoned with lime, cilantro, and grated cotija cheese. It's one of those genius snacker moves that make you wonder why you didn't think of it yourself.
The same cheese sauce makes an appearance in a couple of the small plates ($6 each). Tater Tots come with a side bowl for dipping and will definitely appeal to the cafeteria kid in you, but are a bit steep considering they're just the run-of-the-mill frozen variety. Serrano Ham Croquettes, on the other hand, are great. A crisp, grease-free breading around a gooey center of ham and cheese served with Empire mayo spiked with Pimentón de la Vera, the smoked paprika of Spain.
Also good are Housemade Pickles (everything from fennel and cauliflower to rutabaga and okra), and their Sesame Chicken Wings which come out looking anemic, but turn out to be crisp and flavorful with plenty of sweet soy glaze and a handful of cilantro and scallions. Deviled eggs are creamy and pickle-y with small bits of smoky bacon.
The salads, ranging from $10 to $12, are less of a steal here, and less successful. Of the three dishes in the Seoul Salad Trio ($12), only the kimchi is worth eating. A cold and watery squid salad and overcooked, torn dumplings round out the plate. You're better off sticking with one of the entrees.
BBQ Pork Belly buns are a sweeter, larger-portioned version of the buns that David Chang serves at Momofuku Noodle Bar, though here they're a little less refined, skewing more into barbecue sauce territory with less of the tangy mayo and pickles that make Chang's work so well. Still, the pork is perfectly cooked—tender with plenty of juicy, melting fat.
It's unfortunate that you can't order a slice of that pork belly on top of their Nitehawk Burger ($12, $1 for cheese or caramelized onions, $1.50 for bacon), which was the low point of the meal. Overcooked and underseasoned, it at least came with some good fries. Better were the Fish Tacos Veracruzano ($11), which come three to an order. Well-cooked, nicely smoky grilled fish stuffed into a double layer of grilled corn tortillas with spicy chipotle mayo and a cabbage slaw with radish and lime.
For the time being, beverage service is limited to the bar and cafe (you can still get soft drinks inside the theater—$4 apiece with free refills, how's that for movie prices?), which is unfortunate because their cocktails, if not first-tier, are still quite good. I enjoyed the Re-Animator ($10), and orangey-concoction with gin and absinthe served strong and up.
They show three indie features at a time in the theater and feature both dishes and cocktails tied in to the theme of each picture. So while Midnight in Paris might inspire a Country Pâté ($11) and a French Connection cocktail ($11), you might have more fun ordering a Scallop Ceviche ($13) along with an Alan Partridge cocktail ($9) if you're planning on watching The Trip. It's a kind of silly concept, but it ensures that there's a constant supply of rotating specials.
While the menu is far from perfect, there are a good deal of really great snack foods to be had here, and the thing you've got to remember is that you are eating this inside a movie theater—and not just any food, but the food of a Michelin-starred chef. Compare, say, an order of fish tacos and chorizo queso-dip to the chicken fingers and popcorn you'd get for the same price at a regular movie theater, and you quickly realize what a steal the food here really is.
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