For much of the 20th century, bar food in New York meant the cafeteria line at Blarney Stone, Blarney Castle, Blarney Cove, or any of the other Irish drinking establishments that dotted the urban landscape. The fare consisted of boiled meats, mashed potatoes, and canned veggies, shooting up great clouds of steam that fogged the glass sneeze guards. Antiquarian though they seemed, these establishments invariably turned out a satisfying cheap meal.
Then, after a gradual upscaling and diversification of bar food toward the end of the century, along came the Spotted Pig in 2004, calling itself the city’s first gastropub and aiming to elevate the bar-food conversation to a more refined level. Suddenly, we had burgers pushing $20 with melted French cheeses cascading onto the plate, leaf-only salads dressed with finely tuned vinaigrettes, and—Bloomberg help us—desserts made by pastry chefs.
Soon, every publican who could afford to line up plants in the window was wondering how he could join the gastropub revolution, charging twice as much for bar snacks while signing on guys with moustaches and suspenders to invent expensive cocktails. The gastropub is becoming a culinary commonplace in Brooklyn, too. Take newcomer Dean Street. Obscurely located in the northeast corner of Prospect Heights, the barroom is dark and moody, with stool seating along counters and raised tables. A hallway leads to a rear room that’s been turned into a sunny café, with a prominent open kitchen, white bricks, handsome wallpaper, and flattering illumination via medieval chandeliers. Confirmed drinkers, stay in front!
To launch the endeavor, Dean Street hired Nate Smith, who’d previously been the executive chef at—tada!—the Spotted Pig. But he was out after a month, following the kind of chef-management dispute common these days. The owners claimed his food was too effete even for a gastropub, while Smith averred that he couldn’t abide the sports TV and scratchy jukebox in the front room. After two chef-less months, the restaurant hired Mike Franzetti, formerly of Manhattan’s Stuzzicheria, who has finally stabilized the menu after tinkering with it since early April. Indeed, his work illustrates state-of-the-art principles in gastropub menu construction.
Number One: Keep it simple, with a limited number of choices in each category. Seven apps, seven mains, and a scattering of sides and salads is what you’ll find at Dean Street, meaning the customer can spend less time analyzing the menu and more time drinking. Number Two: Don’t serve bread. Number Three: Make sure there are plenty of things that qualify as value-added comfort food. A case in point is the roast chicken with mashed spuds and mushroom gravy ($19). It really hits the spot, though the effects are achieved in cooking-school fashion with lakes of butter and dunes of sea salt. The added value lies in the gravy—copiously furnished and extensively mushroomed, making you wish there were no rule Number Two.
The gargantuan boneless short rib on polenta ($20) is also superb comfort food, but the mussels cooked in bacon and Kelso beer (brewed a few blocks away in Clinton Hill, to locavoric effect) has somehow caused the bivalves to absorb too much fluid and become mushy. There’s a Caesar salad, because nearly everyone wants one these days. Dean Street’s is fine, except, in service of artful stacking, the romaine leaves are left as uncut as Michelangelo’s David—so eating it becomes a knife-sawing chore, with dressing flying everywhere.
Number Four: A gastropub must provide an ass-grabbingly good burger. Here, Dean Street delivers magnificently. It comes with fries, but bacon and cheese are extra, for an all-in price of $15.
Number Five: There must be a set of wildly adventuresome dishes, even if nobody orders them. One of these is oysters oreganata ($10 for three). “Wait, shouldn’t this be clams oreganata?” a dining companion asked one evening, pointing at the menu and thinking she’d spotted a typo. But the app foolishly substitutes oysters for clams, and through some osmotic hijinks the bivalves are absorbed by their crumbs, developing a texture too science-chefy for a gastropub. Copped from Brooklyn’s Lebanese restaurants, fried cauliflower ($7) is a better idea. Also keeping the carbs low, a magnificent trout—boneless, splayed, and crisply cooked—lies supine on a mesa of collards speckled with cranberry beans, in the tiniest gesture of reconciliation with starches.
Number Six: Desserts must be killer. In this regard, Dean Street excels, offering a light take on cheesecake. At first it came glossed with caramel, but then went the blueberry compote route, which substitutes sweet moisture for mere stickiness, and calls for a cocktail. And so the mixologist springs into action.