October 20, 2008 | BITE: My Journal
De Santos: Italian by Way of Mexico / Bussaco: A Gift for Brooklyn
Tuna tartare with guacamole is Italian with a Mexican hat dance. Photo: Steven Richter
In the evolution of Italian food in New York over more than forty years, we've nearly drowned in a roiling ocean of red sauce, discovered pesto, overdosed on tiramisu, learned to worship the white truffle and buried thin-pounded veal Milanese under arugula salad. We've prided ourselves on loving the authentic and then tweaking it. At the moment, chefs are into warp and woof, stretching the metaphor to make their own Italy. At De Santos in the Village, with its partners drawn from Savanna in Southampton, Puglia and Puerta Vallerta, we should not be surprised to find tuna mackerel tartare with guacamole. Or red and gold beet salad with radish sprouts, roasted corn, goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette. Indeed, nearing 11 p.m., as we confront almond-crusted lamb chops in a cruel dim that barely lets us see the fork, a DJ arrives and the decibels rise. For those of us who have outgrown our clubby moves, it's time for a quick sorbet and escape.
The D.J. sets up between De Santos’ bar and the shadowy main dining area. Photo: Steven Richter
Newish last month when we stopped by, De Santos already has its own rather pleasant Villagey look - handsome bare brick, teasingly provocative Mexican surrealism on the walls, the deliberate murk that has us all reaching for our little flashlights. It takes a while for the Road Food Warrior and me to shuffle off a lingering crankiness from being greeted at the door by our least favorite words, “We can't seat you till your entire party is here.” With seven tables empty and our reservation clearly in the book, this is not exactly the mantra of a restaurant planning to survive.
Once finally seated, my chill melts with a sip or two of red and warmth in catching up with good friends back from a year in Italy. I feel compelled to apologize for the lack of imagination that has us eating Italian tonight. But one scoop of that tuna mackerel mix with its crunch of tobiko on a waffle chip, and it's clear we're not in Puglia anymore, nor anywhere near Tuscany.
“This is nothing like what we've been cooking or eating,” Janice assures me.
Cavatelli pasta with white beans deserves a better class of mussels. Photo: Steven Richter
The last of the heirloom tomatoes chopped and tossed with thin onion curls, basil and Galbani gorgonzola pleasantly prolongs the local summer our friends missed this year. If you discount shabby little mussels that are scarcely worth eating but make a pretty plate hidden in their shells, you can focus on cavatelli and cannelloni beans smartly loaded with hits of garlic. I'd come back for whole wheat pappardelle with wild boar ragu and a rich measure of drained ricotta or the tight, twisted little trofiette pasta curls with mixed mushrooms, spicy Italian sausage, shallots and Parmigiano shavings.
Almond-crusted lamb chops are not as tortured as they sound. Photo: Steven Richter
Our waiter, quite possibly working his first shift ever from signs of tremors and furrowed brow, is clearly unwilling to ask the chef to make sure our duck is rare, but it's just as well, for his career and our fussiness, because there is no choice. Rare is rarely an issue with an old-fashioned roasted duck like this one, juicy and flavorsome on mashed sweet potatoes with a not-at-all overwhelming apricot vin santo glaze. Green peppercorns add a bit of zip to a fine grilled filet mignon with whipped potatoes and Swiss chard. Chef Aldo Alo has a fetish for crusting, as in hazelnut studded swordfish with Cajun corn, snow peas and scallion lemon sauce, but it's not totally fatal. With a menu safely focused on predictable favorites - Arctic char, roasted baby chicken, grilled veal chop - it lets him show off. You'd never catch me paving lamb chops with crushed almond but these fashion victims are not bad at all, actually rare and meaty, served with broccoli rabe, fregole (toasted Sardinian grain) and totally redundant blueberries.
Lately, wily restaurateurs, at wit's end to entice those of us in 401K shock, are offering lowish priced entrees naked on the plate, while apparently instructing the waiter to insist we must order sides. I give De Santos credit for vegetables and potatoes or corn as well on their $20 to $27 entrees. And $7 is exactly what I want to pay for dessert when I'm pinching pennies. Though if you surrender to pastas at $16 to $21, as well as antipasti from $10 to $14, the bill can add up. Ours, for the four of us, is $268.67 with tax and tip. The wine list could be friendlier too. Our choice, the cheapest red on the list at $42, is unremarkable. Our friends, happily engaging managing partner Roberto Polesello in Italian, are already talking about coming back. If so, they'll want too make it early. Polesello plans to turn up the juice with that DJ till 3 or 4 a.m. on weekends to lure after-dinner crowds to hang out with a drink or dessert.
139 West 10th Street between Waverly Place and Greenwich Avenue 212 206 9229
Bussaco: A Gift to Brooklyn
Step through the barrel-arched door past the slab of tree trunk counter. Photo: Steven Richter
Scott Carney, a master sommelier and man about New York restaurants, has lived in Brooklyn since he came to town to go to business school in 1983. Commuting to jobs at Gotham Bar and Grill, Tavern on the Green and later a partnership at Tonic, it was always in the back of his mind that one day he would open his own place in Brooklyn. Now with Brooklyn restaurants multiplying like gerbils, impressing Zagateers, drawing increasing coverage from the critics, the time seems ripe. “Smith Street in Cobble Hill has gone from zero restaurants to thirty,” he observes. “I thought it was time for something more ambitious and I convinced my wife to join me in the dining room.” Carney's artist wife, Melanie Kozol, also teaches evening art classes at the 92nd Street Y. Now she keeps the books and even busses tables. He found his chef Matthew Schaeffer at Le Bernardin, a match made by Chef Bill Telepan, old friend from Gotham days who'd worked with Schaeffer at Judson Grill. The chef was also ready for a kitchen of his own not far from his Cobble Hill pad.
The iconic egg runs over a classic frisee salad with Surrey ham. Photo: Steven Richter
So here they are, determined to win Brooklyn in the space that was Black Pearl before the doomed owners invited Gordon Ramsey in to terrorize them with a “Kitchen Nightmare.” Bussaco is the unlikely name (accent on Bu). It just sounds Italian. Actually, says Carney, “it's a sixth century botanical forest in Portugal that used to be a royal hunting lodge that my wife and I stumbled on during our honeymoon.” And the food is New Brooklyn.
With a friend who, like us, remembers Carney from Gotham days, we make the trek to what strikes me as a not yet gentrified block, though the handsome entrance with its curved barrel ceiling does have a modest royal hunting lodge look. We are ushered past the bar and a long counter cut from a downed tree in Prospect Park, the bark running along one edge. Just last Friday the bar menu was finalized with a $3 baked pretzel, Manila clam pizza, the house burger, and a roast pork sandwich - nothing priced higher than the $13 for a cheese plate.
The three of us love the duck pastrami with its marvelous sauerkraut. Photo: Steven Richter
We settle into a leatherette booth toward the rear under one of Melanie Kozol's big, brightly-colored impressionistic paintings - sipping $11 reds, a Nebbiolo and a Rioja. “Well, there's a perfectly cooked egg!” says our friend, stabbing the yolk on his frisée salad with ribbons of ham. A remarkably lively sweet pepper salad accompanies braised and charred octopus, along with slices of fingerlings and arugula. I've never seen Old Bay puffs before - these little crisps are chewy and sticky - but I appreciate the thought, more alas than the crab chowder itself, which, once most of the fine creamy broth is spooned away, reveals a slog of shredded crab. Chef Schaefer has taken the time to do his own sauerkraut, “using my Mom's recipe,” and it's marvelous with a sweetness of apple and a spike of caraway plus black bread stuffing against pastrami duck breast that is delicious too.
Hominy pairs well with moist pig and crackling skin. Photo: Steven Richter
I really want the bavette (also known as the flap), one of those butcher's cuts of beef, paired with sweetbreads, which I almost never resist. But something gets into me, as it doesn't often enough: the inclination to make the healthy choice. (I can assure you, it's not a new phase I'm entering. I promise to retain my live-for-the-moment passion for offal.) That's how I end up with organic salmon, rare as I prefer it, with a well-made sauce choron, haricots verts and crispy potatoes.
I scarcely have a moment or two to feel superior till I get my share of the duck and then the Greek yogurt cheesecake on a graham cracker crust with fresh figs arrives.
Again here, as at De Santos, if you're not a diehard nickel nurser, and you're indulging on a bottle from Bussaco's ambitious cellar, you could spend $75 or more per person. With the three of us each having one glass of wine and the shared cheesecake, no coffee, our bill is $60 each with tax and tip. Would I make the long Brooklyn detour from Manhattan's Upper West Side again? Probably not. I see Bussaco as essentially a gift to Brooklyn.
833 Union Street 718-857-8828