Potlikker: The Queen of Quirk Comes to Williamsburg
Liza Queen is something of a stunt pilot among chefs, a real risk taker. Eight years ago, when she opened Queen's Hideaway on Greenpoint's Franklin Avenue, she was squarely in the local and seasonal camp, serving a vegetable-heavy menu that leaned toward the American South. But her reverence for the niceties of consistency and predictability proved minimal, and a meal at her restaurant was often a bumpy ride. Some dishes thrilled you, while others clearly didn't work. You might have admired the quirky deviled ham pie and the verbena-chile dressing, but wondered at the adamantine-skin barbecued bunny. The place shuttered in 2008, just as the avenue that Queen pioneered began hopping with boutiques, restaurants, and bars.
According to her résumé, she cooked in Thailand for a spell before returning to Brooklyn earlier this year. Now, instead of an obscure location, she has chosen a storefront right on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. The name of the place—Potlikker—once again suggests strong connections with the South, where the word refers to the juice left in the pot after cooking greens, a fluid to be eagerly sopped with cornbread. While her Greenpoint establishment had a makeshift quality to the build-out (described by New York magazine as "scruffy"), the new place is the opposite: a deep narrow space flaunting clean white walls, neat green tables with matching metal chairs, and an open kitchen in which Queen is often seen on her laptop, presumably tinkering with recipes.
While the food still has an improvised quality, and a dish might be slightly different every time you try it, the execution and platings are more in keeping with modern bistro standards, rather than seeming like you've stumbled into a trailer park kitchen with a wild-eyed home cook. The first thing spied as you enter will be one of the line cooks nursing a fantastically inflated Dutch pancake ($8), an extravagant concoction that puffs up in sizzling grease and arrives at your table dabbed with goat cheese, herbs, and honey. One evening, my friends and I ate one for an appetizer and a second for dessert: It was that good. Unfortunately, on my most recent visit, that app—now $10— showed up freighted with fried oysters and slivered bacon, but still cloyingly sweet. We only ate one that evening.
The best stuff lies in the first two sections of the menu. From Appetizers and Salads, my date and I were knocked out by a salad of plums, breakfast radishes, and lemon cukes—you've probably seen these round, tough-skinned yellow vegetables in farmers' markets—all cut in wedges. "This plum isn't ripe," my companion observed. "Well, it can't be and still crunch like the other ingredients," I reasoned. A sweet dressing suffused the entire affair, and we dug in more avidly as the bowl emptied, ultimately convinced it was a genius invention. Another commendable salad incorporates strips of mild yellow melon, red ripe heirloom tomatoes, and watercress topped with strips of bacon. One thing about Queen—she never stints on the bacon.
Among Small Plates, the second menu division, you'll find some rather large ones. A recent addition to the menu, "end-of-summer fresh pasta" ($13), sees a homemade tagliatelle bombed with tart cherry tomatoes, smooshed Gaeta olives, white anchovies, and masses of shaved pecorino. Eat it and shed a tear for autumn's approach. Even better—and we're sidling into crazy territory here—is a "tartlette" something like an egg frittata on a makeshift crust, with a corn salad on top and little cubes of ass-grabbingly tender beef tongue cascading down the side. How to approach it? That's your problem. I treated each component as a separate dish.
Although many things in the first two sections are exciting, the slender list of four main courses is less successful—though the failures are noble ones. A nicely browned half-chicken with a sweet corn flan constitutes the single unalloyed triumph. Worst is something charmingly called a "big ol' pork chop." It must have been a fine specimen at one point, but the meat has been rendered tough as a tortoise shell and an odd shade of pink in the middle. (A friend who works as a line cook diagnosed the problem: "This cut should never have been brined so long.")
My biggest complaint is that there's no actual potlikker on the menu, as the name of the place promises. Swabbed with a savory version of the Dutch pancake, and sided with plenty of bacon, it just might become your favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner all rolled into one.
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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