If you cut Japanese sweet potatoes into scallop-sized rounds and fry them at too low a temperature they'll turn soggy. If the oil's too hot the skin will burn and leave you with raw starch underneath. But if you cook the pucks just right, something magical happens to the skin ,and the flesh is rendered sweet and delicate. If you adorn the potatoes with segments of winter citrus, lime mayo, and mint, as Zahra Tangorra does at her three-and-a-half-year-old Court Street restaurant Brucie, the preliminary dish sets a high standard for the rest of the meal.
Order Bread and Butter ($3) and you'll be surprised when a mound of crusty bread, warmed through and kissed with olive oil, is brought out on a sturdy plate with a heap of butter that's been buzzed with Stumptown coffee beans. The coffee butter melts graciously onto that bread and serves as an early portrayal of Tangorra's knack for making the ordinary extraordinary with the inclusion of a simple ingredient.
Brussel Sprouts ($13) buried beneath a carefully placed mound of wood sorrel could be filed under New Nordic in their presentation, but the flavors hit closer to home. The sprouts are slow-roasted until each of their little cores melt into a succulent mash. They share a consistency with the bed of whipped chickpeas they're served on, and while I didn't think soft was a preferred way to eat Brussels sprouts, their outer leaves retain crunch and textural integrity. Couple that with a salty jab from bacon lardons, a briny right hook delivered by tuna conserva, and a crunchy uppercut from a handful of Marcona almonds, and the dish is a knock out.
I had clam pasta at a friend's house recently that comes close to the Linguine with White Clam Sauce ($18) at Brucie. But my friend didn't make his own pasta, nor did his sauce reach the luxurious texture of the one Tangorra makes with butter and lemon. Both pastas had the perfect kick from clean chilies, but my friend kept the majority of the clams to himself and didn't think to garnish our lunch with bright orange trout roe.
I don't use lemon zest when I make meatballs like Tangorra does for Brucie's Spaghetti and Meatballs ($18), and despite the zip of freshness it adds, likely won't moving forward. But a dish without a surprise ingredient at Brucie is like a New York Yankee not in pinstripes. The sauce is won't to go to waste, and we saved the dishwasher a bowl by using lingering pieces of bread to clean the excess, still flaked with Pecornio after the noodles disappeared.
Brucie offers chicken for two on frequent occasion, but the preparation varies in synergy with Tangorra's whims. The night I was there she channeled Caribbean warmth with Jerk Chicken for Two ($45). When it arrived on a grandiose tray, none of us looked up from the carefully roasted half-bird—delicately spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—resting atop red rice, yogurt, and orange-rum agrodolce until our napkins were on the table, our chairs were pushed back, and we brought our hands to our stomachs in submission. What was the left-field ingredient in the jerk spice, I asked. The answer: lavender.
Beneath all the cleverness there's a simplicity to Brucie's food. It's comforting without the kitsch, as unique and special as the well-done list of mostly natural wines and a staff as dedicated as chef Tangorra. For inspiration, the average home cook could turn to the ever-changing menu, though take note—anyone can fry potatoes, roast vegetables, and braise meats, but few can do it as well as Tangorra.
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