Allswell: Nate Smith Won't Play B-17
Carrying the gastropub banner forth into battle, Spotted Pig alumnus Nate Smith didn't have much of a chance at the Dean Street Tavern massacre. Early this year, his one-month tenure as chef there ended in a dispute with the management over a loud jukebox and his propensity for developing recipes too creative for a corner bar in Prospect Heights—or so the owners thought. Now the talented Smith has opened a new spot in Williamsburg called Allswell, and he's working unencumbered.
The restaurant occupies the former premises of Raymund's Place, a venerable establishment that represented the days when Williamsburg was a culinary colony of Polish Greenpoint, and neighborhood menus ran to sour grass soup and boiled pig's knuckles. While the multipaned windows and further Tudor elements give the place a cottage feel, other whimsical touches—like panels of children's wallpaper showing frolicking ponies and baseball players hitting home runs—make it purely modern 'Burg. A long, convivial bar dominates the room, running parallel to a candlelit communal table. Less happily, unpadded pews along one wall and backless stools will remind you of the uncomfortable seating at Spotted Pig, or maybe a Puritan church.
Never mind. Once you tuck into Smith's output, you'll forget any orthopedic discomfort. He has chosen to go the way of Romans in Fort Greene by challenging himself with a different menu every evening. You might consider this a marvelous opportunity to try new stuff or a giant pain in the ass, since most diners, if left to themselves, prefer to order the same things over and over. But the bill of fare does fall into predictable patterns, so frequenters can always select dishes that resemble other dishes they've tried before.
The dude likes to put things on toast. One night, it was smooth, firm slices of lamb's liver done medium-rare, mixed with kumquat marmalade—but only enough to give a touch of astringency and sweetness ($6). Another evening, there was a bruschetta smeared with beans and tomatoes, a reminder that the chef's mentor April Bloomfield is a master of mixing Tuscan and Anglo-Saxon flavors. Toasts come from a bar snacks section of the menu that has also featured, at one time or another, a giant homemade pita sided with pickled beets and hummus made with heirloom Italian chickpeas, and salty anchovies swaddled in fresh sage leaves and fried. Nothing goes better with beer, from a list that concentrates on such artisanal local producers as Captain Lawrence, Sixpoint, and Southampton Publick House ($6 or $7 per pint).
As at his previous venues, pig is big, and Smith loves to shock you with it. Instead of the usual rubbery strips, one starter featured an entire fried pig ear facing upward—as if pleading for you to repeat something you've just mumbled. That same evening, one of the four entrées was a pair of wild boar chops ($23), done to a rosy pink and propped up on the plate like some monumental sculpture. Man, were they good. And if you thought you were completely burned out on pork belly, your interest will be rekindled with his take on it: a leaner-than-usual boxcar of meat boasting a crackly layer of skin, dropped into a slurry of herby cranberry beans.
His dump-the-entrée-into-beans approach is also paradoxically successful with chorizo and charred octopus ($13)—which you would think would taste better unalloyed with anything. Dishes that didn't work? On separate occasions, salads of apples and artichokes featured too much arugula: The stalks were difficult to cram into one's mouth in their uncut state and were too bitter on the tongue. In fact, arugula totally dominates the vegetal portions of the menu, to the exclusion of softer, sweeter greens.
Desserts are worth saving room for, via Smith's wife, pastry chef Sophie Kamin. Priced at six or seven dollars, the best have included a mile-high slice of apple pie thickened with almond-scented frangipane and a flatter dark-chocolate tart that surprises you with a lingering chili burn. The most novel, and one that might otherwise become a classic, is a semifreddo flavored with maple syrup and strewn with toasted walnuts. What's a semifreddo? In Italian, it means "semi-frozen" and refers to an entire category of icy, custardy desserts.
The whitish plank splinters as you cut into it and tastes creamy and only slightly sweet. But you'll probably never get to try Kamin's creation: As with all else at Allswell, there's no way of conjuring it to reappear.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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