These are not the best of times for the dwindling number of grizzled, Manhattan-centric food snobs who still consider Brooklyn to be a distant moon orbiting on the fringes of the city’s great fine-dining galaxy. Food scholars will record that 2012 was the first year in modern memory that a celebrated out-of-town chef (Andy Ricker of Pok Pok Ny) chose the docks of the Columbia Street Waterfront District as the venue for his eagerly awaited New York debut instead of, say, a swanky address on Central Park West or some chic locale in the West Village. In the past year, Manhattan’s ambitious chefs and restaurateurs seemed to open more high-profile outlets across the river (Alex Raij’s La Vara in Cobble Hill, Taavo Somer’s Isa in Williamsburg, among others) than on their home turf. Williamsburg now has its very own Manhattan-style hotel-scene restaurant (Reynards), and thanks to the much-hyped, Michelin-fueled success of Brooklyn Fare, snooty gourmet tasting rooms (Blanca, Frej) are popping up around the borough the way mom-and-pop pizza joints used to do in the old days.
Given all this hubbub, it’s not entirely surprising that Battersby, which opened almost a year ago amid the random storefronts on Smith Street with relatively little publicity, has gotten more or less lost in the crowd. There are only 28 seats in the tiny, bandbox-size restaurant, after all, and ten of those are at the bar. The ceiling is covered in antique stamped tin, just like every other preciously named establishment in this increasingly precious, restaurant-infested part of town. For decorations, there are a few candles stuck in Mason jars along the brick walls, and the mini-kitchen in the back looks less like a real restaurant kitchen than a galley in the cabin of a not very large sailboat. Reservations aren’t accepted at Battersby, of course (except for the tasting menu), and the only indication that something extraordinary might be happening at this very ordinary-looking establishment is the motley crowd of neighborhood gastronomes that begins forming on the sidewalk at around six o’clock.
I’d been warned about this phenomenon, and so I sat down to dinner at Battersby at precisely 5:45 in the evening, with my own motley collection of big-city gastronomes in tow. There were a couple of skeptical Manhattan gourmands at the table and a resident of Park Slope who had never heard of the place. We began with demitasse cups of tomato consommé and rounds of focaccia hot from the oven, which we dipped in little bowls of whipped ricotta. Then came delicate little fish croquettes made with Chatham cod—tempura-light on their exterior and creamy-smooth inside—that seemed to contain all the glories of fried seafood in summertime in one bite. After that, there was a delicious bowl of crispy fried kale atop a Vietnamese-style green-papaya salad and an arrangement of heirloom carrots that looked so decorative on the plate that one of the grumpy Manhattanites was moved to take a picture of it. “This food is way too pretty for Brooklyn,” he said.
As veterans of fancy kitchens like Blue Hill and Gramercy Tavern, Battersby’s chefs and co-owners, Joseph Ogrodnek and Walker Stern, know all about pretty food. But working in a kind of tag-team lather in their tiny kitchen here, they produce the kind of intimate, painstakingly prepared food that Brooklyn chefs are often praised for these days but don’t always achieve. “I think this is the best sweetbread I’ve ever tasted,” said one of the skeptical gourmands as we devoured a helping of veal sweetbreads à la meunière, which were dotted with English peas and bits of bacon. The technically perfect pastas—curls of strozzapreti with porcini, linguine with toasted bread crumbs and shreds of peekytoe crab—tasted like they’d been beamed in from another world (or at least another borough), and so did the soft, gently dissolving strips of braised tripe, which were folded with beads of fregola pasta in a vividly fresh tomato ragù.
There were only fifteen dishes on the small, tightly focused menu on the evenings I visited Battersby, and although the ingredients were often the same, most of the recipes were unique each time. One evening, we enjoyed an epic creation called pork belly parmigiana (take the most ethereal pork cutlet you’ve ever tasted, add artichoke hearts and a little mountain of loose, buttery ricotta gnudi), and a slip of seared branzino set over chopped zucchini and drizzled with brown-butter sauce. The next time
I dropped in, the branzino was paired (on the tasting menu) with a classic pipérade (tomatoes, peppers, onions) touched with sherry vinegar. The aforementioned sweetbreads had been reimagined, too (with crisped spaetzle, kale, and a poached egg), and when the roast chicken arrived, it was deboned in tender, crispy strips and garnished with an ingenious, summery combination of stone fruits (white nectarines, sour cherries), sweet blocks of panzanella bread salad, and tangy dabs of Stilton cheese.
This kind of spontaneous, high-wire, seasonal cooking can tip easily into the realm of parody, especially in this haute-forager, locavore-obsessed era. But in their small, unpretentious room, surrounded by merry eaters from the neighborhood, Ogrodnek and Stern manage to make you feel like you’re a guest at a festive pop-up dining club or their own semi-private party. The sense of festiveness is enhanced by the service, which is impeccable in an amiable, neighborly way, and by the drinks, which include accomplished versions of old mixologist classics (try the Boulevardier, made with Campari, Buffalo Trace, and sweet vermouth) and a selection of eclectic (and not inexpensive) Eurocentric wines. The desserts are modest in the tradition of neighborhood joints everywhere, but the best of them—a banana-lime tart, wedges of dense olive-oil cake touched with orange—taste like they’ve been made to order, just minutes before, at your favorite pastry shop around the corner.
225 Smith St., nr. Douglass St., Cobble Hill; 718-852-8321
Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $15; entrées, $16 to $29.
Ideal Meal: Crispy kale salad, veal sweetbreads à la meunière, Berkshire pork belly parmigiana, olive-oil cake.
Note: The $65 five-course “spontaneous” tasting menu is one of the best deals in this tasting-menu-saturated town.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the impeccably balanced cooking and another for the booze, desserts, and intimate, neighborly vibe.