Many restaurants have splashy openings fueled by flittering publicists and camera-ready chefs. Not Calyer, the latest eatery from the team behind Anella, St. Vitus, and Jimmy’s Diner. It debuted in Greenpoint at the end of the summer and has remained under the radar, some evenings hosting only a scattering of diners. But that doesn’t mean you should skip this one. No, siree.
The decor seems to be modeled after a Midwestern hunting retreat: A forest-green sloped ceiling creates a cozy vibe, while wood-paneled and brick walls lend rustic charm. Tufted banquettes curve around the room for primo canoodling. The simplicity jibes with the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. But it’s all the more surprising when you consider the food: highly inventive, artfully presented, Latin-American small plates.
As I’ve griped before, tapas-style places often leave you with an empty wallet and grumbling belly, but that doesn’t happen here. A selection of five dishes—representing about a third of the menu—will easily satisfy two diners (who enjoy sharing their order, that is).
Behold your culinary quintet: Begin with the palate-cleansing scallop ceviche coated in a sweet-potato puree flavored with aji amarillo (a Peruvian yellow chile) and a wallop of citrus ($13). Then move on to pink slivers of shaved veal tongue, preening with cool crema fresco and gelatinous pickled mustard seeds ($11). Up next—seared chicken livers and thighs basking in a decadent peppercorn-and-red-wine reduction ($10) and halved brussels sprouts going tête-à-tête with garlic sausage and culantro ($11). And finally, chicharrónes piled high in a bowl smeared with white-bean puree ($7). A tangy anchovy vinaigrette cuts through the richness of the puffed-up pig skin, seeping into the nooks and crannies. It’s chips-and-dip par excellence . . . for the forward-thinking.
Yes, much of the grub here is meaty. I also dug the tostada ($11), heaped with shredded oxtail, black beans, and watercress. And the ramen for Atkins Diet devotees—that is, pork belly nestling in a smoky bacon broth ($13). Still, vegetarians will likely enjoy chowing down on the broccoli rabe flanked by baby potatoes and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts ($9). Maybe the charred cauliflower ($9), too, though I found it overly mushy.
One thing everyone will certainly love: the cheap booze. The wine list journeys through Spain and Portugal on a budget more Eurail pass than Air Iberia—only four bottles top $50, and nothing’s over $80. The Vina Almirante Pionero Mundi ($39), a classic Albariño underscored with apricot and peach flavors, goes well with the grub. Or explore life outside the red-and-white confines with a vinho verde or sherry.
Remember, hipsters inhabit this ‘hood, too, so craft cocktails naturally make their mark. Heat-seekers will enjoy the la bebida de los dioses ($10), a spicy twist on a margarita flavored with maple syrup and mole bitters. But truthfully, what goes better with Latin-influenced fare than a glass of Peru’s national drink, the pisco sour ($9)? Answer: two pisco sours.
My only major gripe is dessert ($5 each). A dry, spongy mango roll cake lacks the promised fruity flavor, and the banana panna cotta with dulce de leche is gummy rather than silky. Despite these end-of-meal hiccups, you’re likely to leave impressed with the offerings: wholly original food at an appropriate price point, plus a chill ambiance with unobtrusively friendly service. Not many restaurant openings of 2011 can boast all those things. A handful or two, really. So my resolution for 2012: Uncover more spots like Calyer.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.