A whole week after the massive storm made landfall, locals in Gowanus still wore flannel and knee-high rubber boots to gut their smelly, flooded basements. But inside the Pines, a peeling tin patchwork of wall and ceiling glowed with candlelight. The grim work of the day was over, and friends on pink velvet folding chairs mellowed out with cocktails and Gang Starr. It was time for dinner.
Hot, creamy Japanese yams ($14) arrived whole in their skins, split open, loaded with a dense buttermilk froth, tiny anchovies, raw hearts of palm, and cilantro on tender stems. Sounds odd, but it articulated the power of a kitchen to rouse and cheer. Layers of softness, rich with umami, warmed us right through. As chef Angelo Romano’s food hit, it felt for an evening as if everything would be all right.
Romano ran Masten Lake in Williamsburg, but the adventurous restaurant lasted just seven months before closing. Prior to that, he cooked at Roberta’s, and there’s a touch of the Brooklyn swagger here—that permission to wear baseball caps in the kitchen, turn up the hip-hop, then surprise guests with a precisely constructed ballotine of pheasant (a reminder that Romano knows the classics well enough to have a little fun with them). This no longer feels like a contradiction, but whether it works is another story. Often, at noisy young restaurants, there’s a sense of bravado that the food and service don’t merit, and it makes everyone look bad.
Not at the Pines, which is smart, sincere, and often delicious. If you catch a glimpse of Romano, he is working quietly in the open kitchen. His front-of-house team is down to earth but caring and professional. Sure, they mispronounce the word “amuse,” making it sound like a caffeinated drink you’d pick up on your way to a late-night karaoke session (amooz-AY!), but who could complain about that? Especially when it’s a comically tiny spoon of raw macadamia nut and compressed tangerine, singing of orange blossoms and olive oil, presented with a smile on a silver tray.
Dishes built for sharing can ramble on the plate, like the pork shoulder ($22) scattered in juicy, blushing cubes with feathers of puntarelle, berries, and black garlic. Or they might focus intensely, like the row of raw madai with crispy scales, compact bites with three clean finishes, including the cured, grated fat of a beef short rib ($26). Others look traditional: A beveled bowl, printed with vintage flowers, holds rustic cappellacci ($24), a folded, filled pasta. But inside there’s a hot, meaty elixir, buttery with lardo—a pure essence of oxtail, rather than the threads of sticky braised meat you were expecting. This dreamy, Italian soup dumpling sits in a gentle broth, made on one evening with crabs, on another with langoustines. Like many dishes at the Pines, it involves sharp technique, but it doesn’t show off about it.
The Pines is the younger sibling of Littleneck, the Gowanus clam shack just two doors down, but it’s already going its own way. In one sense, the restaurant is becoming a neighborhood joint where local couples meet after work to sip wine and share plates of pasta at the bar, like the chewy pici ($19), mighty with trotter meat, tomato, and salt—a casual dinner before slumping home, getting into pajamas, and catching up on Homeland. But it’s also growing into a destination for food nerds who want to order 10 dishes, a few with ingredients they’ve never had, and let the kitchen course them out as an informal tasting menu. What makes the Pines so promising is that it plays both roles well. Now, to build an audience.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.