A decade ago, Manhattan’s romantic little French bistros withered away, like lardons left too long in the frying pan. But now the institution has been reborn in Brooklyn, at places like No. 7, Buttermilk Channel, General Greene, and the Vanderbilt, though with a menu more attuned to contemporary tastes. The definition remains nearly the same as when the bistro first appeared in 19th-century Paris—a small, comfortable café doing a predictable range of tried-and-true recipes, with an unexpected dish or two thrown in. Also in common with the Parisian originals, our new bistros are relatively affordable, wedged into quirky spaces, and helmed by chefs who can be seen laboring in the kitchen, rather than roaming the countryside seeking TV deals or opening new restaurants in Vegas.
Though it sounds like a gym, Strong Place is named after a local Cobble Hill street, and it might be the most perfect evocation of the Brooklyn bistro to date. The mid-block location formerly housed a gift shop called Shakespeare’s Sister, and the façade is decorated with antiquarian stained glass. Inside is a long bar with seating that surveys busy Court Street, an open kitchen, and a chill rear dining room with small tables that may be pushed together to make big tables. Behind that is a garden still under construction.
Parsing the bill of fare, you’ll find a new set of culinary commonplaces replacing the traditional bistro menu of grilled steaks, gratins, pâtés, moules frites, and wine-laced stews. As is the contemporary practice, the plates are relatively small, inviting you to graze at random among five menu sections—Raw, Market, Sides & Snacks, Fish, and Meat. In the first, there’s a predictable fish carpaccio ($9): delicate slices of fluke strewn with American caviar and tiny cubes of skinless pickled cuke, with fronds of fennel providing extra kick.
In the second, the vegetable-driven section, a market salad presents a pleasant contrast to the usual assortment of baby greens and miniature plum tomatoes by providing neither. Instead, there’s a raft of silken enoki mushrooms, raw summer squash shaved thin, and bitter chickory, in a hazelnut vinaigrette improved with whole roasted nuts. “The dressing tastes like foie gras,” a guest observed one evening. This being Brooklyn, there’s a pot of pickles among Snacks, which arrive protruding from a glass jar too small for the brilliant assortment of jicama, mangoes, and cucumbers, flecked with red-pepper flakes.
Every bistro in Brooklyn must have at least one Southern dish, and in this case it’s a braised hunk of pork loin on a gravel of black-eyed peas ($14), tasting almost like Carolina barbecue. Braising forms a leitmotif (or, maybe, heavy motif?) for Strong Place, since there’s also a beef brisket braised in porter, reflecting the Brooklynite preference for beer over wine. Indeed, a 24-tap selection of craft brews is the pride of Strong Place’s barroom, though a very nice wine list is also provided, with good bottles under $30 (a pinot grigio from Mandra Rossa, for example, at $25).
Yet the postmodern Brooklyn establishment can’t help harkening back to the menu of the old-fashioned New York bistros, sometimes with a purpose. This may be a result of the fact that French technique is still the compulsory major at most culinary institutes—or maybe it’s because French food is so damn good. Strong Place has a steak tartare ($13) on the menu, served with toasts and the de rigueur raw quail’s egg, but there’s also something of an ironic commentary: a vegetarian version called beet tartare ($9), featuring a squat cylinder of the shredded root vegetable—the flavor concentrated to meat-like intensity—surmounted by a layer of lumpy goat cheese.
The menu favors seafood, including a shrimp cocktail with head-on specimens large enough to scare scuba divers, a sautéed skate wing surmounted by those same sea monsters (regrettably slicked with science-chef foam), raw oyster and clam services, and an excellent fried oyster sandwich mounted on a New England lobster-roll bun. To distinguish it from the umpteen other versions you’ve encountered, there’s a battered and fried lemon slice sticking out of the top, which a couple of friends eagerly ate, pronouncing it like nothing they’d ever tasted.
Ultimately, Strong Place conforms to modern food preoccupations, featuring plenty of seasonal produce, a preponderance of omega-3-rich seafood, few carbs, and a playful take on dishes you’ve probably seen before. In fact, much of the menu is splendid enough to make you want to visit on a weekly basis. Which is the whole point of a bistro, isn’t it?