Our meal began spectacularly with a big lump of sweetbreads—lightly dusted with flour, compressed into a jaunty rhombus, and seared to juicy perfection. The bovine thymus came pooled in a rhubarb glaze and garnished with shredded dandelion greens, providing tart, sweet, and bitter flavors that contrasted nicely with the cholesterol richness of the organ. Really, I haven’t enjoyed sweetbreads this much in years. The asparagus salad also proved incredible—a compost heap of green and white fragments, cooked but still crisp, soused with a fondue of creamy Boucheron cheese. The vegetarians at my table fought over it like carnivores.
Were my friends and I dining at some gold-plated Vongerichten, Boulud, or Bouley outpost? Clearly, the appetizers represented a serious achievement on the part of an accomplished chef with a knack for classic French cooking and a fashionable regard for local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients. Both starters ($12 and $8, respectively) appeared on the short but fascinating menu of James, an unremarkable-looking bistro set among the handsome turreted townhouses of Prospect Heights, an eatery more gastronomically ambitious than its location or modest prices would suggest. How did neighborhood bistro fare become so—for lack of a better word—sophisticated? And who swiped the French-onion soup and steak frites?
James replaced Sorrel, a restaurant that tried to channel the success of Red Hook’s 360. I needn’t describe the interior, since it conforms to all the modern tropes of bistro design, with a pressed-tin ceiling, off-white walls, antique bar, mirrors, and a few indifferent pieces of art. As usual, the noise level is deafening when the place cranks up around eight every evening, so try to arrive around 6:30 p.m. (James refuses to take reservations.) There’s another annoying feature, too: Around sunset, the light streams across Carlton Avenue and zaps you right in the eyes. Get an awning, James!
The waitstaff fawns on the patrons, who tend to be gray-haired homeowners who walk with canes and seem to like the desserts best, and young stockbrokers who loosen their ties as they look for the most expensive bottle on the reasonably priced wine list, which includes about 10 reds and 10 whites. The cut-rate French muscadet ($29) is fine with me—crisp, minerally, and effectively alcoholic. This white wine finds its best match with the scallop appetizer ($10), a pair of hulking specimens browned on the edges and coated with something that looks like pond algae—but proves to be a watercress purée that doesn’t upstage the saline sweetness of the crustaceans. Though something of a yawn-inducing standard by this time, the heirloom-tomato salad is a collection of colorful specimens so good that each might have been poked and examined in the farmers’ market by a discriminating purchaser. Decorated with tiny buds of globe basil, the fruit rests in its own “tomato water,” as chefs are fond of calling the juice that runs out of the tomato.
For $3 more than the muscadet, you can cop a bottle of Barbera, a big Italian red from the Piedmont, with the tannins firmly in control. This tipple goes especially well with James’s hamburger ($14), a charred and oozing red mass that peaks out mournfully from under its melted mantle of Cotswold cheese. As my cheese-expert friend Amy noted: “You probably wouldn’t want to eat Cotswold on its own. It was an invention of the ’60s intended to bring plain good British Double Gloucester to a new audience.” Yet this chive-laced, cheddar-like cheese finds its perfect destiny sprawled over a burger, multiplying the allium goodness of the onion garnish. The entrée also boasts a brioche bun and herbed fries—hamburgers don’t get much better than this.
Sadly missing from the list of entrées was a vegetarian selection, for which James deserves one demerit. The tasting plate put together for one of my pals was bland and generally unimpressive. The excellent nut-coated, stuffed, and fried brook trout ($22) with fennel slaw and random orange segments might assuage some quasi-vegetarians, and for those who avoid red meat, the chicken is a fine choice, a half-bird wrapped around a filling of treviso—which sounds like the name of a champion golfer, but is really a milder and pointier version of radicchio.
And the name of the joint? “It undoubtedly refers to the biblical apostle James,” I pontificated, admiring a stained-glass window in a house across the street.
“Oh, no,” a vegetarian responded. “Given the excellent American cooking, the name is obviously a tribute to James Beard.”