People like eating outside, and they’ll stop at almost nothing to do it. They will choke down steaming food as mysterious water droplets rain down from air conditioners above. Crowd a party of eight into one pitiful corner of shade. Inhale exhaust (or canal) fumes along with aromas of fine wine. But for Angelo Romano, diners aren’t the only ones compromised; the food suffers as well. Everyone wants to eat outdoors, but according to chef of Gowanus’s The Pines, cooking as meticulously planned and executed as his own doesn’t always survive the journey from the kitchen to an outdoor table. His answer was to bring it all outside, even the kitchen.
At Backyard at the Pines, the recently opened extension to Romano’s elegant indoor space, diners order from a specialized menu cooked entirely outdoors. Inside, the ever-changing dishes are artfully plated to exquisite effect; out back, the chefs trade in tweezers for tongs and a relaxing good time. Lanterns are strung across a patio littered with tables and potted plants. A server might snip a garnish from the shrub next to your table. There is even a picket fence. On a sunny afternoon, kids nibble flatbreads. On Saturday nights, the garden is full, and, like any good backyard barbecue, dinner gives way to a party.
The Backyard, open since May, offers a casually idyllic outdoor dining experience, but it began as a way to maintain the integrity of “inside food,” the fancy plates Romano labors over for his dining room. Beyond the novelty of cooking outdoors, Romano admits, “it’s also a way save my ass, by saying, ‘Sorry, you can’t have the capellaci and crab brodo outside on the patio when it’s 87 degrees out and it might rain and its windy.'”
What you can have are seasonal small plates of “outdoor food.” From the wood-burning grill comes Basque sausage, summer squash with boquerones, and a comforting flatbread with provolone and tomato jam, all served on a single platter. Soba in cold dashi is a hot-weather respite from warm food. The plastic fork you’re given is no match for thick stalks of wild greens that have been charred over the fire, but take this as a sign–it’s the backyard, and you really should be eating with your hands, anyway. There are good-looking beer options and four ciders you’ve never heard of–Romano was inspired by San Sebastian cider houses–but the wine list goes no further than “Red,” Rosé,” “White.” Press your kindly fedora-sporting server for specifics, and he may just bring you a couple of generous tastes before filling a hefty plastic cup to the brim with a wine (though he still won’t divulge the label).
Outdoor cooking is the great equalizer. Anyone can char dogs on a Weber, but while you were wielding tongs on your friend’s deck in the Hamptons over the Fourth, Romano and his team were three and a half hours upstate for some staff bonding–which, if you’re as obsessive as Romano, means hours spent on 200 acres foraging for fresh menu items to be carted back to Brooklyn in coolers and served at the restaurant. The Backyard may feel like home, but Romano takes the cooking and sourcing out there just as seriously as he does for the indoor counterpart. This is not your typical cookout.
Romano drew inspiration from a more classic cookout, though. Just across the canal, Gowanus Yacht Club has been firing up the grill and passing out hots and hammies to a patio full of beer-drinkers for years. If this ramshackle lot could have a grill outside, why couldn’t a carefully sourced and plated restaurant, as well? Pok Pok NY’s Andy Ricker jumped on the outdoor kitchen train, too; his Columbia Street hot spot boasts a smoker, a rotisserie, and a couple of grills. Another point for Brooklyn’s dining scene–Manhattan chefs just don’t have the space.
Will more chefs make the move outdoors? Romano had a bunch of friends over the other day (oh you know, just guys like BBQ master Daniel Delany and Mile End’s Noah Bergamoff) and the conversation turned to the potential of outdoor cooking. It seems the sky’s the limit, until the Health Department catches wind. That coveted “A” proudly displayed in restaurant windows is achieved by following carefully dictated (if controversial) regulations for kitchen cleanliness. Add in the elements, and the rules get fuzzy. Outdoor kitchens are allowed for by the Health Department, and these restaurants are playing by the rules as written, but the regulations have so rarely been tested that it’s unclear what inspectors might take issue with. “We’re kind of running it right now like a pirate ship,” says Romano. “We’re going to push it as far as we can until something happens.”
The next push debuts this weekend. Starting Saturday, the Backyard will be open for brunch, serving inspired takes on “indoor food” like sheep’s milk with fruit and granola, lamb bacon with gem lettuce and tomato, and summer rolls with chanterelles and melon. Also look out for some preserved vegetables, which have been fermenting since before the Fourth of July. Romano won’t release a menu in print, but he plans to keep the outdoor-inclined entertained as long as the weather allows. “All you know is you get to sit outside and do whatever the fuck you want–drink, hang out, and have fun.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 12, 2013