The candlelit front room looks onto a shadowy street with nothing to see but a straggling pedestrian or two. Turning a sharp corner into the back room, you’re confronted with a giant window that puts cars charging onto the BQE right in your lap—like watching Le Mans from a front-row seat. Luckily, the food is exciting enough to compete. An amuse-bouche is first off the starting line, on this occasion a shallow saucer of carefully groomed corn kernels in a light broth that whispers habanero, though the chile’s presence is more perfume than heat. A couple of tiny okra buttons cavort in the middle, cooked so briefly that an engaging slime is their premier component.
Excitement factor aside, La Brunette may be the only bistro in Williamsburg worth visiting on a regular basis. That the establishment bills itself “French Caribbean Cuisine” is not encouraging—eliciting fears of puerile cooking-school experimentation—but as you eat your way through the menu, you’ll find the fusion is accomplished subtly, a sideswipe rather than a head-on collision. An oxtail terrine ($7) compresses strips of avocado with shreds of rich meat in a salty trickle of sauce, while red snapper tartar [sic] features the Caribbean’s favorite fish julienned with pickled purple onions and mounted on tostones, a dish that would be at home in a Haitian cabby hang in Flatbush if the components weren’t so precisely aligned.
Other elements of Creole cuisine survive intact as well. My favorite appetizer is a modest pile of pork “ribletts” ($8), sponged with chile sauce and framed by zigzags of yellow mango puree. But there’s also a tiny bowl of an authentic Haitian hot sauce called ti-malice, based on bonnet peppers, shallots, and other aromatics shredded in a violet-tinted vinegar, so hot you can’t believe it’s being served in the ‘burg. Thank you, chef! Less praiseworthy is a careful stack of haricots verts and purple potatoes ($6) that looks like a Celtic burial cairn, dressed with a luster-less aioli. The Andean spuds are so dusky and dense that they throw the whole dish off. Better is a salad of thinly sliced chayote (also called mirliton or christophene) with blood orange, goat cheese, and pistachios, which hums like a well-tuned engine.
La Brunette is that rare bistro where the entrées manage to keep pace with the starters. A spice-massaged pork loin ($14), ringed with a decadent layer of fat and still pink-tinged in the middle, comes with roasted pineapple slices and a cassava mash and is topped by a Guinness gravy that tipsily captures the spirit of Caribbean cooking. Those who want something less fussy can go with the grilled fish of the evening, generally a snapper, dourade, or sea bass (market price, $20-$25), which is almost enough for two. Vegetarians are particularly catered to, with a tour-de-force “pot-au-feu aux légumes des Antilles,” a multi-tuber stew wherein winter squash—which disintegrates into a thick orange gravy—stands in for the usual clod of meat. The drawback of this approach: no marrow bones on the side.
But my favorite entrée is that hoary bistro standard, steak frites ($17). Cooked perfectly to order, the sirloin is miraculously transformed by a shallot-lime butter (on another occasion it was a thick chapeau of anchovies and Kalamata olives) that adumbrates rather than interferes with the flavor. And the most important part of the dish? The french fries have been replaced with planks of fried yuca, their texture crisp, their flesh as creamy and plush as the leather upholstery in a vintage Mercedes. Believe me, you won’t miss the spuds.