Park Slope—you either love it or you hate it. The rows of stately brownstones, the SUV-sized strollers, the tea lounges full of screenwriters, and, of course, the Park Slope Food Co-op, a haven of beautiful produce and crunchy-granola one-upmanship that inspires either vitriol or passionate dedication. (A Chow article described it as a cross between an “earthy-crunchy health food haven and a Soviet-style reeducation camp.”) But now, directly across the street from that mecca of contentiousness, arrives Bussaco, a restaurant with food so eminently likable that it could be an ambassador for the neighborhood.
Bussaco (pronounced with the emphasis on the middle syllable) is owned and operated by sommelier Scott Carney, who was a partner and general manager of Gotham Bar & Grill from 1985 to 1995, then worked at Tavern on the Green. For this new venture, Carney recruited Chef Matthew Schaefer—who lives in nearby Cobble Hill—away from Le Bernardin. He also took over the large space where the Black Pearl once was and turned it into a savvy ode to Brooklyn: The dining room’s 18-foot communal table is fashioned from a white-oak tree that once stood in Prospect Park and, the story goes, crushed several parked cars when it fell. The blond Douglas-fir wood that surrounds the booths is fashionably reclaimed from condemned houses in the area. It’s an eco-chic approach that’s in vogue at the moment, but what sets Bussaco apart is the excellent food and fairly priced wines.
The menu is simple—seven appetizers, seven main courses—and there is barely a misstep in the bunch. The bar menu is separate from its dining-room counterpart and features clam pizza, duck rillettes, and hamburgers. (I didn’t sample the bar menu, as it wasn’t up and running at the time of this writing.) The prices are not cheap, but they are judicious: The bar menu hovers in the $7-to-$12 range, while main courses in the dining room average at $21.
The crab chowder is an almost overwhelming bomb of crabbiness. The chive-dotted broth has a light, milky consistency, and the hunks of lump crabmeat are piled in the bowl in an unusually generous portion. It comes with a side of Old Bay puffs, the texture of which are reminiscent of Asian shrimp chips. I called Schaefer to find out how he makes them, and it turns out that shrimp chips are the inspiration for the puffs, and that they are relatively simple to make: Schaefer makes a thin batter of tapioca flour and water, steams it, and then fries dollops of it at a high temperature. He makes his own Old Bay–inspired spice—black-and-white pepper, pimente d’espelette, mace, mustard seed, bay leaf, and celery salt—and dusts the puffy chips with it. The texture reminds me of Styrofoam—in the best possible sense.
That’s a fun flight of fancy, but Bussaco isn’t afraid to be simple. The kitchen also makes mozzarella by hand, to order, for the mozzarella salad. The cheese arrives not quite set, a milky, mild, jiggly puddle topped with red onions, tomatoes, and croutons.
Since the chef just came from Le Bernardin, you’d expect him to be great with fish—and you’d be right. And, just as you’d guess for a restaurant across from the Park Slope Food Co-op, the fish is sustainable, and wild and line-caught when possible. A grilled-prawn appetizer features stout, head-on crustaceans with sweet, char-marked flesh. The chubby prawns sit in a smooth chickpea purée.
The octopus is also among the best appetizers. (And it’s the only dish that has Iberian roots—Bussaco is named after an area in Portugal, but Carney chose the name because both the restaurant and the region are “hidden gems,” not because the food is Portuguese.) The octopus comes mounded on a plate in thick, inch-long nuggets with prominent suckers—this is not baby octopus, folks. But it is wonderful, braised to tenderness and then charred on the outside.
On the fishy side of the main dishes, there’s steamed amadai (less prettily known as grey tilefish) and manila clams, which sit in a pool of buttery-golden lemon-herb broth. Dark, meaty Tuscan kale also soaks in the broth, rendering it rich and saturated with butter.
Most of the main courses, though, are meaty (with the exception of a very fine vegetarian sweet-potato tortellini, swimming in brown butter). Beef bavette (flap steak) is a bloody marvel, all tender, mineral beefiness. It’s sliced to show off the garnet interior and scattered with nuggets of crisped sweetbreads. I prefer sweetbreads whole, so that you get the full effect of their creamy texture, but they work nicely as a garnish here. The bavette is finished with blowsy blooms of Yorkshire pudding, made from an eggy, yellow batter that’s crisped in fat. The pudding is dense and yolky, like a condensed popover.
Then there’s fried poussin with waffles. (Get it? Upscale chicken and waffles.) When it comes to upscaling versions of delicious things, the fancied-up creation better be as delicious as the original, or I get cranky. But this one is pretty great. The baby chicken arrives in the form of mini-drumstick, thigh, and breast, fried golden and crisp, piping hot, and greaseless. The Belgian-style waffle is topped with an inadvisably large dollop of cinnamon butter.
The lone, minor misstep on the menu is that the pastrami duck breast doesn’t taste like pastrami at all—no black pepper, juniper, and/or coriander rub in evidence. But the sauerkraut and black-bread stuffing on the side are appropriately earthy.
Meanwhile, you’ll want to drink wine with your meal, and Carney has put together a smart list of wines from France, Italy, Spain, and the U.S. that’s priced fairly enough that you can actually afford to order them. Wine by the glass starts at $7, and there are no less than nine bottles that are under $30.
Like Park Slope, Bussaco is earnest and maybe a little too serious—the servers, for instance, sometimes seem alarmingly grave. (The “tap or bottled water” question is followed by the information that, alternatively, we could pay extra for the filtered water that “we bottle here.”)
Now Bussaco just has to work on its soundtrack. One night, the music veered from classical to Elvis to some sort of ’90s hip-hop, which prompted a friend to say, “I believe this song is sampling tracks of children screaming.” (At least there weren’t any real-life children screaming. You can’t take these things for granted in Park Slope.) Then, in perhaps the boldest musical choice I’ve ever experienced at a restaurant, the theme from Super Mario Bros. II came on. We stared at each other over the peppy, synthesized boops and doops and wondered if we ought to be trying to save the princess.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 26, 2008