August 30, 2015 | BITE: My Journal

The Heyward: A Fig Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The chocolate chip cookies is soft and salty, so it the caramel-stirred chocolate ice cream.
The chocolate chip cookies is soft and salty, so is the caramel-stirred chocolate ice cream.

          I could say “Be careful what you ask for…you might get lost in Brooklyn.” I’ve often said I would be happy to go to Brooklyn for dinner as long as the spot takes reservations and someone is willing to drive. Well, so be it. My friend Diane did the research. She invited friends living in Brooklyn. She reserved. She picked me up and we hurtled down West End Avenue. We are headed for a Ladies Night Out in Williamsburg.

Partners from Hudson Clearwater in Manhattan ventured The Heyward in Williamsburg.

          We don’t expect traffic on an August Saturday, so that creeping pileup at the foot of the West Side Highway is a shock. And the bossy little GPS on her iPhone does not warn us the Hamilton exit on the bridge will be closed with no sign of a suggested option. We just keep hurtling further and further into unknown Brooklyn, circling and circling because Diane has agreed to pick up Carolina Salguero from her floating tanker home docked in Red Hook with time enough to meet Kathryn in Williamsburg and claim the corner banquette by 7:30.

Locals sit at the bar that encircles the kitchen.

          At least we have Carolina, a more reliable GPS, to get us from Red Hook to the greener fields of edible Brooklyn. There is a full moon rising above as we drive through the Satmar Hasidic neighborhood, where bearded men in long black coats and prayer shawls wear huge donut hats. Suddenly, on the other side of the street, we see a dazzling throng in billows of shocking pink and turquoise chiffon. “A  quinceañera,” Diane and Carolina decide. Oh, the rich splendor of Brooklyn when you are running late. I’m mesmerized and forget to take out my camera.

Pork belly with foraged crushed berries is the evening special.

          We barrel on toward the fabled feeding troughs of Williamsburg. You should not imagine I am dubious or blasé. The truth is I’m really excited. Diane has chosen The Heyward, partly because they had a table, partly for its Low Country Southern cooking. I announce our slightly tardy arrival to a gorgeous grownup woman among the young princess-like servers whirling around the nearly empty room. (Brooklyn chiclettes obviously don’t come out to eat at 7:30 like we do.)

From above, scallops on rocket pesto, fried and raw tomatoes, shrimp and grits.

          We settle at the bare wooden round of the corner banquette Diane had requested. It takes an annoying while for a server to notice we are here. I wave my arm in the air in the unattractive way I sometimes do when I’m being ignored. The cocktails are $13. My Pont Royal with Barbados rum, apple brandy, lemon, honey and ginger comes in a tall glass with a dozen ice cubes but I’m determined to make it last.

Fried green and raw red tomatoes on buttermilk ricotta.

          Diane and her pals seem willing to let me order and agreeable to sharing everything. I focus on appetizers and sides that sound Southern, ignoring entrees we could order anywhere.  I have to ask for serving spoons, as I almost always do – doesn’t anyone get it? When you’re sharing, you need serving spoons. 

Thick braised pork belly slab rides in atop Carolina rice and Sea Island peas.

          I’ve never been to Charleston or Savannah. I’ve fallen for the Low Country cooking Alexander Smalls and J.J. Johnson do at The Cecil in Harlem, but most of what’s emerging here from the kitchen, with a sprinkling of regular locals at its wrap-around bar, is wildly different. But much is good or very good, and almost all of it is surprising, and even whimsical. “We stick to the less embraced side of Southern food,” chef Kevin Bergh says.

A ring of seafood chunks and fruit with pickled watermelon rind in Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

          The house is out of crab so we won’t get the mini crab rolls advertised. The waitress suggests we might want to order the pork belly special instead, with foraged berry relish, smoked corn and dilly beans. That’s a roundup typical of chef Bergh. It sounds like a Midsummer Night’s Dream. He grew up in St. Louis and spent time in New Orleans and Nashville. Like most hip chefs these days, he goes to the greenmarket and asks his purveyors what’s new and good.

          We’ve already tackled the savory pileup of crispy braised pork belly and Hoppin’John  -- Carolina gold rice and Sea Island peas laced with carrots and tomato. You can try to cut away the luscious fat but somehow it defies dietetic sanity. Pork belly twice in an hour is more than enough pork belly for me.

          I’m happier with his chilled seafood salad served in a ring of cut fruit, raspberries and seafood tidbits with baby red sorrel leaves and furls of pickled watermelon rind. It looks like it was arranged on the plate by fairies, but Meyer lemon vinaigrette adds zest. Kathryn worries that the melon salad will be predictable and a bore, but how can it be with cherry tomato, avocado and shards of gouda cheese tossed among chunks of red and yellow melon?

Shrimp and grits with chorizo and shishito peppers in buttery shrimp broth.

          The shrimp and grits cooked in a buttery shrimp broth are especially lively, with the addition of chorizo and shishito peppers. Only the fried green tomatoes, served alongside fresh cut tomatoes stoked with buttermilk ricotta, seem a little stodgy.

It’s not just another melon salad, with cherry tomatoes, avocado, gouda cheese and benne seeds.

          I know something is up when the scallops arrive. I havn’t ordered any of the entrees – having no patience at all for chicken breast, or yet another hanger steak, the housemade pappardelle pasta, the cheeseburger. But I’m guessing someone recognizes a restaurant critic with that tattletale camera. And here the scallops are -- beautifully cooked in verbena butter, full of flavor, sitting on a rocket pesto, dotted with lima beans and jeweled with nasturtiums.

The kitchen sends scallops beautifully-cooked in verbena butter on rocket pesto with limas.

          Are we still eating? Yes, instead of entrees, I’ve ordered a trio of generously portioned sides. I would like my macaroni a little less creamy and infinitely crisper, but I succumb anyway to these double curled noodles baked to order in a small black iron skillet with Gruyère, white cheddar and ricotta.

Okra has certain charm when fried, but especially with this six pepper sauce.

          Okra can be a nasty vegetable, but its passes for delectable when it arrives armored in thick, crispy batter. This okra also gains points for its six-pepper dipping sauce. We ask what peppers and our agreeable server goes off to ask. Calabria chiles, red bell, Aleppo, piquilla, black pepper and peppadew. That explains the hint of fruit –fruity peppadew.

Cornbread chunks sit atop corn succotash with bits of pepper and onion.

          Small, toasted chunks of corn bread atop the corn succotash remind me the house has not served any bread. Indeed, there is no corn bread on the menu. (“Except at lunch,” the chef says). I’m not suggesting I must have bread. I’m just noticing how many places are fooling around with bread service -- charging for bread, not serving it at all or waiting until you ask.

Skillet baked mac’n’cheese with Gruyère, white cheddar and ricotta sour dough breadcrumbs.

          The three of us agree on desserts: buttermilk fig cake with rhubarb and raspberry, and the chocolate sundae. That comes in a thick glass with half a soft salted chocolate chip cookie on top. The second half has been broken into chunks hidden with streams of salted caramel in the ice cream.

Buttermilk cake with raspberries, rhubarb, figs and and salted pistachio butter.

          And what is the sticky green smudge along side the buttermilk cake? “It’s salted pistachio butter with coconut oil,” chef Bergh says. “I hoped with the raspberries and rhubarb it would remind people of peanut butter and jelly.”  

Chef Kevin Bergh aims for a lighter kind of Southern cooking.

          He stands at the bar directing the cooks all night. In between the grilled hanger steak with fig sauce vierge and Humboldt Fog cheese, and the market fish with smoky tomato chutney, I now realize it’s impossible to be sure what he’s plotting next.  The Heyward. Big surprise. I’m smiling.

258 Wythe Avenue between Metropolitan Avenue and North 3rd Street. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 718 384 1990. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. Dinner seven days a week from 6 to midnight. Saturday and Sunday brunch from 11 am to 3 pm.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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