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If Edward Hopper had been in a better mood when he painted Nighthawks, his famously desolate scene of a diner, the piece might have ended up looking like Fort Defiance, viewed from Van Brunt Street on a late, velvety summer night. The light streams out onto the dark sidewalk, the people inside going about the companionable business of eating and talking or cooking and mixing drinks. Anywhere else in the city, you’d be distracted by cars and passers-by. But in Red Hook, where the waterfront still feels a bit lonely, a full, bright café is a singular thing.
There’s nothing miraculous about Fort Defiance, or any of the other good places that have popped up like campfires along Van Brunt in recent months. But somehow, they’re just what you want in a neighborhood—Anselmo’s, a BYOB coal-oven pizza joint filled with pot-bellied men in white T-shirts; O’Barone, a small, sweet Italian restaurant run by a guy from northernmost Italy who makes his mom’s schnitzel and offers you free glasses of homemade lemoncello; and Fort Defiance, a place that peddles small wonders like proper seltzer, a strong Tom Collins, and country-style pâté.
Every now and then, I’m reminded of why Red Hook remains one of the best neighborhoods in the city—it’s insular enough that a restaurant can be filled with people who know each other, and it lets first-time restaurateurs cultivate a small, quality place (LeNell’s greedy landlord notwithstanding). Fort Defiance sprung from the imagination of St. John Frizell, a food writer and bartender, formerly of Bon Appetit and Pegu Club. Frizell’s new spot has slid right into the neighborhood, offering a handful of excellent sandwiches, along with nighttime cocktails and small plates.
As befits a café, the sandwiches are particularly good; they are only served at lunch, though, with the exception of the muffuletta. Much attention has been paid to this rendition of the Italian cold-cut behemoth invented by a Sicilian immigrant at New Orleans’ Central Grocery at the turn of the 20th century. The sandwich actually takes its name from the round loaf it’s served on, which manages to be puffy and soft, but also sturdy and crusty. Great Italian cold cuts are not hard to come by in New York, but the bread is particular to New Orleans, making it nearly impossible to find a good muffuletta outside of NOLA.
Fort Defiance has commissioned a bakery in Staten Island to re-create the Central Grocery bread, resulting in a noble interpretation of the original. As in New Orleans, you order the muffuletta by the wedge, cut from a hulking 10-inch-round loaf. Flanked by tender-crumbed bread, the pink-and-white layers of fatty meat and cheese squish delightfully into the traditional, chunky olive relish. I remember the original at Central Grocery being messier—uncontrollable, even—dripping olive oil and filled with a stack of cold cuts at least an inch thick. But that’s just how New Orleans is.
I actually liked Fort Defiance’s banh mi more—it’s a freewheeling translation rather than a meticulous re-creation. There’s the usual pickled daikon and carrot, plus sprigs of cilantro, piled on a small, crusty baguette smeared with mayo. But instead of Vietnamese cold cuts and a swish of creamy liver pâté, your teeth sink into inch-thick slabs of rough, porky country pâté, French-style. And in place of a slick of Sriracha or rounds of raw jalapeño, this version gets its heat from a wonderful red-and-green-chile relish, a colorful mash spread liberally on the bread. Other sandwiches include a very fine tuna salad with hardboiled eggs and pickled red onions, and a seasonal-special heirloom tomato sandwich.
Frizell has created a beverage program to shame any spot in Manhattan, and it’s also one that a pregnant woman could appreciate. Cocktails are only available at dinnertime, but at lunchtime, the bar pours wine by the glass, and offers excellent seltzer dispensed at great pressure out of an old-fashioned spigot. Order a bottle, which costs only $2, and your server will dole out the refreshing bubbly into tall glasses frosted with ice. Or choose from the spicy, not-too-sweet gingerade, homemade pineapple soda, and a traditional egg cream. That wonderful seltzer also shows up in the cocktails—particularly the Tom Collins, a mix of sparkling lemonade and gin, a concoction bettered only by the cucumber version, which is perilously refreshing.
Fort Defiance doesn’t function as well for dinner, especially if you’re with a group of hungry people (although I hear that a full-fledged dinner menu is in the works). Out of the handful of dishes now available, the only plate that could really be called a main is the muffuletta. The other plates are good for sharing, ranging in size from snack-like (a dish of olives), to appetizer-ish (a plate of poached shrimp). But since there are only about a half-dozen of them, a group of four or more might have to double up on some items. To augment a meal, order from a selection of charcuterie and cheeses; lovers of stinky cheese should pick the Taleggio.
Of the smallest dishes, we loved the deviled egg with a creamy, whipped center that tastes of good mustard and yolks, and the brick-red cashews fried with smoked paprika. One night, we ordered one oyster each ($2 each—not at all overpriced, but not cheap), and happily slurped the fine briny specimens from their smooth, grayish-green shells, harvested from Duxbury Bay in Massachusetts.
Don’t miss the bluefish rillettes, which sometimes sell out later in the evening. The preparation makes excellent use of that dense, rich fish—whipped into a salty, rich paste, and potted. Spread it on a crostini with a bit of the sweet onion relish that comes alongside. The pork pâté found in the banh mi shows up again on the dinner menu, this time augmented with bits of fig, and cut from a loaf with a pork loin embedded inside, giving every fat-speckled slice a center of lean pink meat. Skip the cold poached shrimp, which taste too strongly of iodine.
Fort Defiance takes its name from a Revolutionary War stronghold that kept George Washington sheltered from a British attack one night on the banks of the East River. He may have been better fortified if a Tom Collins and a muffuletta had been included in the deal.