You’ve got to troop down a dark stairway to reach Jimmy’s No. 43, catching glimpses of codgers holding up the barstools in the sports bar upstairs. Once in the gloomy substratum, you’ll face a labyrinthine layout, each successive room heralded by a pass-through with a pointy gothic arch. In one room you find a cramped bar, while in another fake kegs accumulated up near the ceiling look down on small tables. In still another, an oblong communal counter with bar stools peers into a commissary-style kitchen, where the cooking is mainly done on hot plates. Walls and furnishing are clad in dark, beer-sotted wood. A low passageway leads to an adjacent basement—also part of the premises. One expects a procession of Belgian monks to parade through on their way to a Satanic mass.
The décor is undoubtedly owing to its location next to Burp Castle, a monastery-themed beer bar whose empire has shrunk. I’ve heard that the waiters complained about the itchy brown robes they’re required to wear. Reveling in its cryptic name, Jimmy’s No. 43 can’t decide whether it wants to be like Burp or a market-driven bistro. In these confusing culinary times, there’s apparently no conflict in doing both. Reflecting the old world and the new, the beer list is a remarkably compact document. Predictably, the beers lean toward the dark side: Who would bother with wine when you can get a Goliath Triple Ale from Belgium ($9 per goblet), or Blue Point’s Oktoberfest Ale from Long Island? Since Jimmy’s partly espouses locavore thinking, you’d better select an imperial pint of Bengali Tiger I.P.A. from Six Points Brewery ($7), located just across the river in Red Hook.
The menu is torn between market-driven fare and gussied-up bar food, like a culinary Jekyll and Hyde. The bar food, obviously, is the Mr. Hyde: It includes a shepherd’s pie ($10) that substitutes stone-ground grits for mashed potatoes, and the mince underneath spoons up rich and slightly tomatoey, like a Bolognese ragout. A pickle plate ($5) has been reformed by the farmers’ market into a tour-de-force of watermelon rinds, green beans, red beets, cherries, and plain old cucumber pickles, thrown helter-skelter onto a small plate. It makes a fine shared appetizer, but the beets taste disturbingly of clove. There’s a grilled sausage snack, too—though the sausage is a locally smoked Polish kielbasa of small circumference that would do Per Se proud. Meanwhile, the usual plebian snack of salted peanuts has been upstaged by toasted walnuts ($3) spritzed with local honey and fennel pollen. One expects to be attacked by bees while downing this crunchy and profuse treat.
Ultimately, the Dr. Jekyll side is more interesting, scrawled almost illegibly on a chalkboard that the distracted servers push from room to room. One evening we enjoyed a salad of mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes ($9). “This is the last week heirlooms will be available in the farmers’ market,” intoned our waiter, stretching the truth a bit. But the salad was no predictable Caprese, and there were no tomatoes lined up like a chancel choir gathering around them their surplices of damp mozzarella. Rather, the yellow and green and purplish-red love apples (as they were once known in Europe) were cut in wedges and tossed with diced mozzarella and shreds of purple onion, making the tomatoes the center of attention. Not a leaf of basil anywhere—instead, a black-pepper vinaigrette set the tomatoes on fire, bringing their sweetness to the fore.
Those basil leaves turned up in a cream-less corn soup ($8) that glimmered with orange chili oil and concealed a handful of minced herbs. Less successful was the candy-cane beet risotto ($11): Though prettily decorated with beet greens, the cubes of arresting striped beets were so small as to be invisible. Still, the al dente risotto was cheesy and tasty, and Jimmy’s prices are downright cheap by East Village standards. The menu offers a couple of fish filets like daurade, Pacific salmon, and branzino, catering to fishetarians who have not read End of the Line, a book that preaches the imminent demise of wild oceanic species.
Rather, go for the smoked pork loin ($16). I expected the restaurant to cop out and sling a smoked chop from the Polish butcher around the corner. But the loin, plopped on a bed of mashed potatoes, was well-fatted and home-smoked. And let me tell you, bar food doesn’t get any better than that.