The Buttermilk Channel lies between Red Hook and Governors Island in New York’s Upper Bay. Before being dredged in the 19th century, this watercourse was shallow and swift-flowing, and the water would foam up like buttermilk as the tides came and went. Now, the channel is deep and peaceful, but the name has been taken by a restaurant in Carroll Gardens, which used to be considered part of Red Hook before real estate moguls in the 1960s decided to rename it after an Irish signer of the Declaration of Independence. How patriotic!
Buttermilk Channel is a great name for a restaurant, homely and evocative. The place is located so far south on Court Street that you might almost be hit by litter thrown from the Gowanus Expressway, which roars overhead. While this remote area has been slow to show obvious signs of gentrification, many of the houses on the surrounding streets have turned over in the last few years, and the resultant well-off homeowners and upscale renters form the core of the restaurant’s patronage. On a recent snowy Sunday, I trod doggedly up and down Smith and Court streets, inspecting dozens of restaurants. While few were more than 30 percent full, when I arrived at Buttermilk, the pale interior was thronged, with waits for a table totaling two hours. (Sadly, the place takes no reservations.)
Of course, if you’re going to name a place Buttermilk Channel, you’ve got to feature at least a few things containing buttermilk. Chief among these is a $5 side of buttermilk mashed potatoes—a good showcase for the sour richness of the beverage. Less successful is the buttermilk fried chicken ($18), innovatively offered with cheddar waffles. There’s nothing wrong with the bird’s flavor or crispness, but experienced cooks know that when you dip chicken in buttermilk prior to breading, the proteins blacken as the chicken fries, so that the finished product is dappled with unappetizing dark spots.
The chicken and the potatoes partly clue you in to the bent of Buttermilk. It’s a comfort-food place for sophisticated foodies, one that cashes in on locavoric attitudes, but isn’t afraid to go experimental. The carnivorous menu (there’s a vegetarian menu, too!) has lots of little boxes, which must be navigated to put a meal together.
Among “House-Made Charcuterie,” find a terrine ($9) that changes occasionally. Recently, it was made with duck and pork belly, an ungainly combo that worked perfectly, chunky and sprinkled with fleur de sel. The same section features a bacon appetizer that—though I guess it still qualifies as charcuterie—arrives stewed and planted on a piece of toast. Another great starter comes from “First Courses”: A grilled kale salad ($8), in which the meaty vegetable, slicked with a salty anchovy dressing, provides a foil for a runny egg and huge sourdough croutons. For dieters, this could be a satisfying main course.
Of the many mysterious paths your meal could take, bunned entities form one cost-effective option. One of these is a grilled bratwurst ($10) tendered with sauerkraut and grainy mustard. (Two Wisconsin sisters I dined with one evening deemed it “totally authentic.”) There’s also a juice-dripping burger that comes with New York State cheddar and fries. If you like your burger sans bun, check out the so-called duck meatloaf ($20) in “Second Courses,” a nicely browned and bulbous patty buoyed up by a slurry of spinach—and I can’t figure out how chef Ryan Angulo gets such bounciness out of spinach.
Unaccountably, it’s in “Second Courses” that the dishes are most likely to falter. An entrée of bacon-wrapped brook trout ($19) was overdone one evening, the bacon darkened beyond recognition and imparting little smoky flavor. The so-called winter pasta, a meatless selection that does double duty on the vegetarian menu, features ziti glossed with rosemary butter and tossed with sweet potatoes and pumpkin, which turn into an indistinguishable orange mush. A column on the menu’s left side details daily specials, often a little more daring than the restaurant’s usual entrées, including Wednesday’s pork-cheek schnitzel with prune jam and Thursday’s braised rabbit flavored with vanilla bean. Proceed at your own risk. . . .
As befits a beloved neighborhood bistro, the desserts become the center of attention once the clock strikes 10 p.m. or so. Served in a parfait glass, the pecan-pie sundae ($7) is a post-prandial masterpiece, featuring Blue Marble vanilla ice cream and plenty of crunchy, salty, caramely, chocolatey tidbits. It’s compelling concoctions like this that will keep Buttermilk flowing as other Carroll Gardens bistros dry up.