On a late summer night at Governor, the room was unbearably hot, and nothing could have been more refreshing than the bowl of clear lobster broth made icy with apple granita and nearly raw pieces of lobster meat. Chives were thrown in like confetti. But as I enjoyed my sweet, cold consommé, I noticed the diner at the table next to mine sent hers back to the kitchen because she “expected something else.”
This new restaurant in DUMBO might not be an instant crowd-pleaser. But if we’re lucky, chef Brad McDonald will go on surprising us. His cooking at Governor is thoughtful and fresh. It stands out among the city’s rustic-chic simulacra of roasted marrow bones, kale salads, and pork belly whatsits. Delicious as those may be, here you’re more likely to find big Island Creek oysters, poached in a bright emulsion of lobster roe, running over slices of house-made sourdough. The dish is something of a modern pan roast, cleverly trading in the weight of dairy for leaner, deeper flavors from the sea. On one night, the oyster toasts ($7) might be garlanded with foraged carrot blossoms, on another, sea arugula.
McDonald began cooking professionally while studying literature at the University of Mississippi. His food reflects his Southern roots as well as some experience in French, Danish, and American kitchens. Cultured butter is made in-house from the whipped-up, inoculated milk of New York’s Battenkill Valley Creamery. Bread is prepared every day with McDonald’s sourdough levain, in a slow-rising process that takes about 36 hours.
This is the third restaurant from Tamer Hamawi, Emelie Kihlstrom, and Elise Rosenberg, who met while working at Public and raised some funds to open their first venture, Colonie, through Kickstarter. McDonald cooked at Colonie and opened Gran Electrica, their Mexican restaurant in DUMBO. Governor is more idiosyncratic. More exciting, too.
The menu changes frequently. Recently, paisley-shaped crisps of sourdough were smeared with duck liver, fermented ramps, chicken skin, and sprinkled with tiny purple onion flowers ($7). A frothy bog of salt cod nurtured all manner and texture of summer beans and blazed with bright chorizo oil ($14). A lamb leg with blackened eggplant purée ($25) was like rereading a classic story, this time with someone’s brilliant little notes scribbled into the margins—ribbons of charred ramps, petals of pickled garlic. A standout dish, and one that’s enormously satisfying for a bit of lettuce, was the grilled romaine ($11), drizzled joyfully with a vinegary sauce of yogurt, sunflower seeds, Champagne grapes, and cubes of bread.
Desserts are offbeat but right in tune with the savory side of the kitchen. A thick fluff of lemon-soured cream comes dotted with cherries and a quenelle of cucumber sorbet. A less cerebral, more satisfying finish: the big, tender almond cookie scattered with tiny bullets of white strawberries.
A few dishes at Governor miss the mark. I found a strongly flavored beef tartare ($14) to be chopped too finely, transformed into a dank and anonymous paste of meat. And the crackers that held it tasted like the freebies one might find at a Paleo convention in the Javits Center.
The staff isn’t able to answer questions about the food just yet—but they look sharp in their long blue aprons and rolled sleeves, and they are pleasant. Governor’s two-storied dining room is huge, noisy, and the tables for two along the wall feel cramped, but there is seating at the bar of the large open kitchen and a bit more upstairs.
Robert Gair, Governor’s namesake, was a 19th-century business tycoon who built his empire right here in DUMBO, manufacturing the most boring thing you can imagine: folding boxes. The dozens of vandalized portraits that haunt the entrance are of Gair, who went by “Governor” in the days when DUMBO went by Gairsville. McDonald read his biography leading up to the opening and wanted to pay his respects, cheekily. Even the menu, if you’re inclined to cut and crease it as instructed, becomes a box. Funny mascot for a restaurant that’s thinking outside of it.