The Underground Gourmet on Mama Joy's and Café à la Carte at Hotel Particulier
According to MenuPages, there are 110 gastropubs in this town. By our calculations, that is an increase of 109 gastropubs since the Spotted Pig unleashed its first bowl of gnudi in 2004. Now, in addition to British gastropubs, we have French gastropubs and Austrian gastropubs and—what’s this?—even a Filipino gastropub. There’s also a new Wylie Dufresne gastropub, if you count Alder as such (Dufresne may not, since he refers to the East Village spot as a plain old pub, despite ample evidence of its “gastro”-ness). Some people think that this gastropub thing has gone too far, but the Underground Gourmet is all for it: If you define the term as a business that functions primarily as a bar but aspires to serve great food, what’s not to like? Which brings us to Mama Joy’s, a self-described southern gastropub located on the outskirts of Bushwick, in whose divey premises the U.G. recently discovered plenty to like, even love.
For starters, there is the crumbly crusted fried chicken—a resoundingly crunchy thigh and drumstick harboring some supremely juicy flesh beneath its matzo-meal armor. It comes with hot sauce and honey and mashed potatoes, plus some buttery fresh-off-the-cob corn that might make a disapproving locavore shed his seasonality shackles just this once. More corn satisfaction can be found in the jalapeño-laced hush puppies and the incredibly soft and moist, almost ganache-textured cornbread. The boutique grits come from an obscure Georgia mill and can be had as a soul-soothing side or as shrimp and grits, which is pretty much a perfect exposition of American regional cooking on a single plate.
As the restaurant’s website has it, Florida and South Carolina expat mom-and-pop owners Chad and Laura Hensel decided to open the place after moving to the neighborhood six years ago and not being able to find any honest-to-goodness southern-style cooking. Which is funny, considering that today it seems like entire swaths of Kings County have been transformed into the Deep South, with biscuits and barbecue springing up everywhere from Williamsburg to Gowanus. They named it for Laura’s grandmother, a community-minded Wichita Falls, Texas, super-hostess named Virginia Joy Florey Biggs, whose likeness stands sentry by the kitchen door in a couple of vintage photos. The overall vibe, though, is more honky-tonk than church fund-raiser. It’s dark and drafty. Decades of paint and paneling have been peeled away from the walls to expose the rough framework. The bar, which dispenses American whiskeys, craft beer, and $8 cocktails, has been salvaged from a shuttered East Village gin joint, and the moody paintings have been curated by a moonlighting line cook. In a word, it’s not the type of setting at which you’d expect to catch Mama Joy throwing one of her binges.
The kitchen, on the other hand, seems to have expertly channeled the generous spirit of this grande dame. On recent visits, we’ve feasted on aptly winterized belt-looseners like tender stout-braised short ribs with sautéed cabbage and cheesy mashed potatoes, pot roast with sweet parsnip purée and roasted carrots, mac ’n’ cheese with duck confit, and chicken and dumplings rescued from potential blandness by a mega-blast of cracked peppercorns. Truth be told, the kitchen tends to overdo it with the pepper, which some (not us) might consider a flaw. And in the face of heightened competition on the burgeoning wood-smoked scene, the BBQ pork plate with its blandish meat will win no blue ribbons. The Old Bay aïoli that comes with the hush puppies and the fried green tomatoes (which materialized as red one night, without prior warning) is kind of gluey and needs work. Still, with its modest charm and surprisingly deft execution, Mama Joy’s underpromises and overdelivers on its version of southern comfort. Case in point is the banana-pudding dessert special, as homey as the kind they sell at New York’s retro-southern bakeries but as light and frothy as an Italian zabaglione whipped up tableside.
On the surface, the new Café à la Carte at Hotel Particulier in Soho has little in common with Mama Joy’s, but there is a subtle connection. While Mama Joy’s hangs Bushwick-requisite local artwork on its excavated walls, Hotel Particulier makes you feel like you’re eating inside a gallery (you actually are) where every last detail is curated, from the shop (the current theme is “monastic chic”) to the food. The super-hostess running this show is Frédérique Thiollet, who has carved out an airily industrial space in a onetime loading dock at the western end of Grand Street and converted it into a salon dedicated to conversation, inspiration, and hospitality (Virginia Joy Florey Biggs would be proud). Round café tables and metal folding chairs are arranged on an elevated platform, and Thiollet operates the place as a “no-kitchen concept”: Everything is outsourced to local “food artisans,” then prepped and presented with sophistication and grace. Skinny baguette sandwiches from Williamsburg’s Margo Patisserie come with potato chips, an apple, and a macaron for $9.50; hot and crusty Greenpoint-baked savory pies are garnished with a thatch of mixed greens; zestily seasoned Moroccan carrots and marinated beets are procured from the falafel joint Taïm. The care taken with the food and the unique atmosphere make for an entirely civilized experience, one that has yet to establish a MenuPages presence. Soon, we hope.
1084 Flushing Ave., nr. Porter Ave., Bushwick; 347-295-2227; mamajoys.com
Hours: Monday through Friday 5 to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $10; entrées, $10 to $14.
Ideal Meal: Fried chicken or shrimp and grits, banana pudding.
Note: Check out the backyard in warm weather.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the soulful cooking; one more for the convivial southern-gastropub vibe.
Café à la Carte at at Hotel Particulier
4-6 Grand St., nr. Varick St.; 646-329-6341; hotelparticulier.com
Hours: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, from 1 p.m.
Prices: $7 to $9.50.
Ideal Meal: Moroccan beef pie and a side of “Tah-EEM carrots.”
Note: There’s pastry in the morning and charming lunch bags to go.
Scratchpad: One star for the carefully curated menu and another for the offbeat, peaceful setting.
*This article originally appeared in the April 8, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.