Good restaurant names are apparently getting harder to come by. When I told my dining companion we were hitting Watty & Meg, a new bistro in Cobble Hill, she replied, “It sounds like a pair of storm-tossed orphans in a Truffaut film.”
“The name commemorates an obscure 18th-century ballad by an eco-conscious Scottish ornithologist turned street peddler, and Robert Burns wannabe, who apparently hated women, especially if they scolded him,” I replied, pausing to catch my breath. I’d read the hype about the restaurant, then unearthed the poem. “The rule ought to be,” I pontificated, “if the name can’t be explained in 10 words or less, it’s not worth using.”
Poem or no poem, Watty & Meg occupies a lovely south-facing corner storefront at Court and Kane that formerly housed Caffe Carciofo, a restaurant that seemed forbiddingly dark and empty whenever I looked in the door, as if a séance were about to take place. Now, French doors have been installed and flung open to catch summer breezes, while lines of outdoor tables litter the sidewalk like ants at a picnic. The décor is owing to a Greenpoint salvage yard called Build It Green, which offers recycled furnishings from all corners of the city. Though the proud decorator compares the interior to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, that’s a bit of a stretch.
Other Southern influences on Watty & Meg’s menu are easier to detect. Shrimp and grits ($16) constitutes a knowing riff on a Low Country classic invented by the Gullah people of South Carolina. (Remember Gullah Gullah Island?) But rather than creamy hominy topped with small shrimp in a pale gravy, Watty’s version features chunky grits flooded with havarti cheese. On top, garlic-gobbed grilled shrimp cavort, and a wad of collard greens has been added as a verdant counterpoint. It’s an altogether satisfying tuck-in. There’s also a pale, but excellent, side of mac and cheese ($6) that makes a great appetizer, and an iceberg wedge soaked in blue cheese dressing—though the dressing is a little skankier than you might like.
Yogic influences add another maverick tilt to the menu, because chef and co-owner Sosie Hublitz—who arrived here not long ago from Virginia—is reportedly an enthusiast. This is principally seen in an obsession with quinoa. Dubiously described as “couscous,” it underpins a crisp-skinned slab of organic salmon ($21) that is otherwise perfect. It also appears slicked with a tangy vinaigrette in a three-salad combo, wherein it totally upstages two hapless companions: blushingly naked sliced avocado and chewy but tasteless kale. Indeed, the starter resembles the cheerless fare one might find in an ashram, where food is entirely beside the point.
But while the menu may fly off on conceptual tangents, the place remains a neighborhood bistro at heart, and a decent one at that. Ensconced in a puffy brioche, the burger ($12) is a paragon of its type, made with grass-fed beef and flaunting fries a little thicker than shoestrings. The hanger steak is similarly appealing, glazed with a wine-laden marinade and sided with mashed potatoes instead of fries. Did I mention that the mash is dotted, for no explicable reason, with shrimp? Maybe that’s the way Thomas Jefferson liked his spuds. The best dish on the menu is an app: Marinated mussels ($8) is 12 perfect specimens lined up like opposing chessmen with a salad in between. The mussels are glossed with a thick sauce of ginger and sesame, and faintly sweet. Our second-favorite starter deposits merguez sausage in a thick lentil stew, tweaking a French bistro classic.
While the food at Watty & Meg is generally solid, and a little more cheaply priced than you might have expected (don’t worry about their bottom line, the wine list is overpriced), Top Chef and its ilk must be blamed for the places where Watty goes wrong. Top Chef contestants invent perfect dishes, then screw them up by adding extraneous and discordant ingredients—it makes them seem clever and looks good on TV. Watty’s chicken breast is a case in point: The bird, leg bone protruding, is expertly cooked, but the pumpkin-seed-and-mint pesto used as stuffing contributes nothing to the dish, and the gravel-y succotash and squash purée underneath is a useless distraction.
Butter lettuce salad ($10) is another example. Sure, the greens are scintillatingly fresh and tossed with almonds and Parmesan shards, but an already too-sweet vinaigrette has been zapped with vanilla essence. Damned if it doesn’t taste like someone squirted Mister Softee on your salad.