The first thing you notice about Char No. 4 is the smell. It’s an aroma you could eat with a spoon—smoky, full-bodied, and porky. It turns out that the chef makes his own bacon, and, consequently, the entire place smells like the inside of a smoker. Even after you leave, the smoke clings to you; when I got home, my dog tried to eat me.
This is a restaurant with focus: smoke, meat, and whiskey. The eatery’s name refers to the practice of charring the oak barrels that are used to age bourbon—level four is highly charred, resulting in more intense, charcoal-wood-flavored bourbon. And Char No. 4 is similarly fervent, offering 300 whiskeys from around the world (from American bourbon to Scotch whiskey to Japanese whiskey), but you’ll pay a price for the place’s expertise. Booze like Maker’s Mark and Macallan 12 cost a few dollars more than you’d pay elsewhere, but if you’re a whiskey-phile, the enormous selection probably makes up for the price. The whiskeys are presented alongside a Southern menu that makes prolific use of the homemade bacon and the fryer.
The front bar area, where you can order from the menu or just have an overpriced tipple, is actually bigger than the back dining room. Sit at the bar and gaze up at the rows of large beige cylindrical lights suspended ominously overhead; the lights look a bit like the bottoms of barrels. The place is all flattering lighting, sleek, rich chocolate-brown and beige, with coffee-colored leather booths. In design, it feels like Manhattan—but then, most of south Brooklyn is filled with refugees from Manhattan now.
“We should just come here for drinks, bacon, and ice cream,” my friend Willa said, as we stared down at an enormous bowl of deliriously good homemade butter-pecan ice cream doused in bourbon. Yes, we should, and that’s pretty much the point. It’s not that the other offerings aren’t mainly fine, but it’s obvious that Texan-born chef Matt Greco is pork-obsessed.
The simplest and best way to enjoy Char No. 4’s bacon is in the form of the black-eyed-pea appetizer. This is a simple little plate that offers stewed black-eyed peas and two thick slabs of the smoked, seared pork belly, each one about as big as a playing card. The lean bits are burnished brown, striated with wide bands of creamy fat. It’s salty and fragrant with wood smoke and has a clean, porcine savor. The black-eyed peas are underseasoned and seem like an afterthought, which they may well be.
The BLT is also a showcase item. When a friend ordered the sandwich, the worried, mop-headed waiter hurried back after a few minutes to inform him that the BLT “wouldn’t look like a normal BLT.” We assured the waiter that whatever form the BLT took, we could probably handle it. It turned out to be “normal” in the sense that it was made with nicely toasted white bread spread with mayo and stacked with tomato slices and romaine lettuce. What did look different was the bacon: “It looks like a fried chicken breast,” noted the BLT-eater. The tomatoes in the BLT are pickled, which is a nice (and needed) counterpoint to the fried bacon. The sandwich also comes with a little dish of sweetly pickled red chilies, which further adds a welcome zing to the plate. In the end, though, the sandwich could have used more tomatoes and lettuce—a good BLT is about balance, after all, although I can appreciate the very unbalanced appeal of homemade deep-fried bacon.
Bacon makes another appearance in a remoulade sauce garnishing a plate of cornflake-crusted fried oysters. The remoulade is creamy, tangy, and swimming with minced chives and tiny-diced bits of chewy bacon. It’s basically a dip of seasoned mayo and bacon. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this genius combo before? Unfortunately, the fried oysters—and I love fried oysters—are puny and totally overwhelmed by their thick cereal cladding.
But sometimes, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and the kitchen’s devotion to bacon turns a bit maniacal. The clam chowder would have been very respectable, except that it featured exactly one clam and was entirely overrun with confetti of bacon, the fatty bits of which have the squish of clams but none of the lovely oceanic flavor. It should have been called bacon chowder, but that doesn’t sound so good, does it?
The best dish that actually eschews bacon is the house-cured lamb pastrami appetizer. The lamb is sliced into gossamer pink ribbons, slicked with coriander aioli, and garnished with pickled onions. The faint gaminess of the lamb plays nicely with the pastrami seasoning of black peppercorns, fragrant coriander, and juniper seed.
The bite-sized crispy cheddar curds are also a worthwhile appetizer—although it is fried cheese, and you might want to save your death-by-coronary for the bacon. On the simpler side, an appetizer of lightly funky Kentucky ham, fig jam, and pickled red onions served with rustic toast is a savvy exercise in salty-sweet-tart contrast.
Ironically (or not, given Southern culinary predilections), Char No. 4 also excels at greens. Cooked greens, that is: The beet and arugula salad was boring in the extreme. The smoked, honey-glazed half-chicken is well-seasoned and moist, but marred by a rubbery skin. The best part of the dish is the side of braised mustard greens, which are cooked down to tenderness and scattered with garlic cloves and tender baby turnips. Likewise, a side dish of Swiss chard, stewed with sweet onions and prunes and garnished with chopped pecans, is about as craveable as greens can get—all bitter-edged sweetness. The Swiss chard can be ordered on its own or with the homemade sage-pork sausage, which is a rare pork misstep—it’s juicy but unremarkable.
But really, in the end, although it’s obvious that Matt Greco can cook, you’re here for pork fat and whiskey, which is really what we need more of in a Depression. Speaking of money, although the whiskeys are a dollar or two more than you’d spend elsewhere, the food is, on the whole, fairly priced (main courses average $18; sandwiches average $12).
If you’ve reached dessert and the meal hasn’t induced a coronary, don’t get all virtuous on me: Go for the butter-pecan ice cream slugged with bourbon. The amber pool at the bottom of the bowl starts out very sharp and boozy, but as the ice cream melts, the drippings pool into the bourbon, rendering it one of the most out-and-out delicious desserts in Brooklyn.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 19, 2008