Last year’s biggest restaurant tease was St. Anselm. Rather obscurely named after an 11th-century archbishop of Canterbury, the place opened in Williamsburg without a liquor license in May 2010, promising an emphasis on nose-to-tail eating that would have included beer-battered brains, homemade scrapple, foie gras pierogi, fried gizzard confit, and something intriguingly called “Skin 3 Way.” Well, the requisite booze permit was late in arriving, so an alcohol-free St. Anselm launched with a simple but slightly disappointing menu of Jersey-style burgers and franks. These were best eaten in the magnificent backyard with a beer from next-door Spuyten Duyvil, which, along with Fette Sau across the street, formed a mini-campus of related establishments.
St. Anselm sputtered along for less than a year before closing to retool. Finally, the place reopened in early June of this year with a new menu and a liquor license. And guess what? The variety meats were mainly missing, in favor of a menu that co-owner Joe Carroll calls “simply seasoned meats and seafood.” Even the marrow bones promised on the new bill of fare were not available on my first visit. Much of the rest of the food, though, was on the money. The appetizers were terrif, including grilled artichokes daubed with aioli ($8); griddle-crisped mashed potatoes subtly flavored with truffle oil; and, especially, a collection of wine-braised octopus arms ($15). These came mounded high on a piece of toast, teetering precariously as the dish was brought to the table, and eating it required a steady hand.
Which is not to say a steady hand always rested on the tiller of the restaurant. In fact, two of the entrées (which come unaccompanied and are called merely “Bigs”) constituted flights of fancy so strange that you wonder why no one noticed how bad they were. The first was a small chicken ($19), head still dangling. The pullet appeared to have been attacked with napalm. The skin was black and hung gruesomely loose, and the feet were shriveled and deformed as though the bird cringed as it perished. Once the inedible outer trappings were peeled away, the flesh—which tasted like it had been brined in Arizona tea—was sweet in an almost repulsive way. A pair of gigantic beef ribs (“deviled bones,” $17) was another fail. There’s no telling what cooking process they’d undergone, because the pair had been reduced to shrunken brickbats of gristle and crumb.
Cryptically prepared ribs aside, most of the cooking is done on a gas grill, usually to good effect—especially when it comes to seafood—which tends to be sustainable here, so you can munch it guilt-free. An entire mackerel ($10) emerges striped from the grill, awash in olive oil and decorated with little peppercorn-covered twigs, reminding us by their resemblance to miniature cherry branches that peppercorns are a fruit. A trio of grilled sardines is generous at $10, sided brilliantly with pickled lotus root—not as a gesture toward culinary reconciliation with Asia but as a perfect crisp counterpoint to the dark, oily flesh. Though they didn’t improve much from the flame opening they received, the magnificent parsley-dotted clams would have done a seafood shack on the Jersey shore proud.
Can the grilling ethos of this Brooklyn saint go too far? Seemingly not, since a Caprese salad served warm with red grilled tomatoes turned out to be a boffo idea, intensifying the flavor of the fruit and warming the cheese a little bit, too. And browning cauliflower on the grill dispels the sulfuric savor the vegetable often develops—which is why you rarely find it otherwise than raw in restaurants. But a thick piece of bacon (really more like Canadian bacon) tasted a little too much like ham, and this cooking process did nothing but make it dryer.
Like Spuyten Duyvil next door, which specializes in large bottles of Belgian ale, St. Anselm has an atypical alcohol program, centering on craft beers and keg wines. The last is a new fad, though one that has already been exploited by Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster and Tom Colicchio at his pop-up High Line outdoor bar. The poster child for this method of wine delivery is a product made by Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery called Brooklynbrusco. Thin only begins to describe this pale pink fluid, and so does sour-tasting. A much better exemplar is the plainish, unoaked chardonnay from Channing Daughters out in Long Island. Both cost $20 for 500 ml served in a beaker with a handle. Though it may hurt your locavoric bones to be drinking wine from the North Fork rather than Red Hook, you’ve been warned.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.