I have never understood why anyone would denigrate eggplant. Sure, I’ve cooked soggy mush parmigiana, but that’s not an indictment of the nightshade as much as my inexperience in the kitchen at the time. Eggplant can be excellent in all its forms: cold, mashed, and electrified with mustard oil, like Bengali-style baingan bharta; sweet and savory as it is in Iranian eggplant jam; or simply roasted until it basically turns to purée. For years, I’ve maintained an obsession with Chinese stir-fried eggplant, sweet and garlicky. On occasion, I’ve been known to buy little Japanese eggplants with no recipe in mind. And some of my fondest sandwich memories involve eggplant, many of them breaded cutlets at Italian American delis on Arthur Avenue or Staten Island. Eggplant, I know from years of investigative reporting, makes an excellent sandwich. So when I noticed an eggplant-and-peppers sandwich on the menu at Doctor’s Cave Café, which reopened in Bed-Stuy last month after a few months of renovations, I decided to do the smart thing. I placed an order and got a side of pumpkin chicken soup.
For the sandwich, both regular old purple and zebra eggplant are used, grilled until the skin is glossy and darkened. The pieces are thin but meaty; you can really bite into them. The peppers are roasted and red, bright and a little sweet, and there’s a few leaves of terribly fresh lettuce, all crispy, crunchy, and refreshing. The sandwich is slicked with chimichurri made from carrot tops, lovage, parsley, roasted garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. It’s not too complicated. Like all great sandwiches, it gets the job done with just a few ingredients. An added perk of the eggplant sandwich is that it leaves room for one of co-owner Jean Williams-Cutler’s excellent baked goods. Maybe a blueberry tart made with cassava flour, a coffee cake with rhubarb, or soft coconut cake.
Save for a few years when it was temporarily closed, Doctor’s Cave Café has occupied this quiet corner of Marcy Avenue and Putnam since 1999. Williams-Cutler and her husband Timothy Cutler opened the café, but this sandwich is a new addition, courtesy of their son Morell Cutler. In part, he was just trying to make use of some spare produce. “We would get a lot of carrots in and there would be so many greens and they were so fresh and vibrant, and I decided to blend them into a sauce. I thought, What would this be good on?” he says. “And I’m kind of over portobello mushrooms, so maybe eggplant?”
The discreet location makes it feel like a secret, the sort of place you’re surprised is still around. Step inside. It’s a lovely place that looks like a bed-and-breakfast or country kitchen, the walls painted white and a creamy shade of orange. Decorations were gathered over the years: seashells collected from different beaches; an antique oven they got from the mother of a Hudson Valley farmer; a painting by Morell, who is an artist.
The café was named for the Jamaican beach where Williams-Cutler and her husband first met while they were both on vacation in 1989. He is from England; she was raised in Jamaica, one of nine kids, and says her childhood on the island gave her a strong sense of what constitutes good food. “We ate everything — oh, now, it’s called organic. It just wasn’t labeled,” she recalls. “We were a big family of bakers, my sisters and I. I’ve always been cooking, and I’ve always been baking, ever since I was a little girl. And as I’ve gotten on now.”
In the 1980s, she moved to New York and eventually bought the building on Marcy Avenue. The catalyst for opening Doctor’s Cave was her husband’s immigration from England. When he joined her in New York, he had a hard time finding work as a lawyer. When the man who had been running a luncheonette out of the storefront passed away, they fixed up the space. “After we got it cleaned up, we said we are not renting this space to anyone,” she says.
At the time, Williams-Cutler was working as a nurse at Bellevue Hospital in the ICU. She continued to work in hospitals, sometimes part-time, while also running the café with her husband. It was a big presence in their lives. “I just always thought it was an important part of my family growing up,” recalls Morell.
Owning the building has allowed them to run the business on their own terms, even as Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy have been transformed by gentrification that’s pushed out residents and other business owners. The real-estate advantage allowed them to close the café for a few years while they had the building’s cornice rebuilt, and to be open for the hours they see fit. (These days, it’s 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.) “If this was not my building, then that would be different. I would probably be under a lot of different restrictions,” Williams-Cutler admits.
Five years ago, Williams-Cutler retired from nursing. She and her husband now go back and forth between Bed-Stuy and their house in the Hudson Valley, which they bought 13 years ago. They grow shallots, potatoes, and other produce. She says she tries to support farms in the Hudson Valley, particularly ones run by women, like Hepworth, Minard’s, and Maynard farms. Down the street from their house is Story Farms, which has been run by the same family for six generations. A few weeks back, a local popped in not for a jerk tofu sandwich but for her order of eggs, which Williams-Cutler says she ferries down from her neighbor in the Hudson Valley. One afternoon after closing, Williams-Cutler left the door open and a Dutch oven of roast beef cooking while waiting for people to pick up CSA shares. A man walking by peered in through the open door. He hadn’t been by in a while. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. Gesturing to the expanded space, he said, “But this, you know — get out of here.”
So: Why renovate and reopen the café after essentially retiring? It’s all part of the plan for Morell to take over the business in roughly a year, to keep it going and make Doctor’s Cave Café an evening spot a few nights a week, as well. (The goal is to start dinner by January; Williams-Cutler says they’re hiring a chef to help.) They won’t serve the same style of food. Williams-Cutler promises it’ll be “a very distinct Caribbean menu,” and talks about getting goat meat from the Hudson Valley, salt cod, and some vegetarian dishes, too. Morell says there’ll be straight-up jerk chicken on the menu, but other dishes won’t be so traditional. “I’m creating a menu now that’s all reimagined Jamaican classics,” he explains. “I’m pulling from Asian cultures, I’m pulling from Thai food a little bit, just in terms of making it more brothy or a little bit more raw.”
They also envision a future, maybe a year from now, when their son Morell is running the café. “I’m doing this because making Doctor’s Cave live on and go to a new level — that’s a good thing,” Williams-Cutler says. “We’ll be in the background. We’ll still help. As long as I’m able — because I love this.”