In years past, fine dining was where you’d find fussy waiters chasing your every whim. But these days, even casual restaurants can feel like a tasty bit of puppet theater with a wild showman chef directing; a buzz in the air hints at madness streaming from the kitchen. And then there are places that forego the nightly charade, opening their doors to an unchoreographed dinner dance that charms in spite of itself.
Fritzl’s Lunch Box, Dan Ross-Leutwyler’s 19-seat hideaway deep in the heart of Bushwick, lands in the latter category. Walk in and a waiter may greet you eventually, but he won’t care where you sit. Wander to the backyard, past loose-slung curtains that demarcate hearth from hallway. Peek behind the drapes; the kitchen is calm. Pots bubble on the stove, usually attended by the chef himself. Staff scuttle in and out at a genial clip that’s anything but harried, and though service can meander, acquiesce to their pace and notice you’re suddenly as relaxed as they are.
Ross-Leutwyler’s brief but eclectic menu reflects his stints at Fatty ‘Cue, Roberta’s, and The Breslin: A stellar pork rib sandwich ($10) is smoky but bright and bookended with bread that harkens to Texas toast without the heft. Add a side of potato salad ($4) dressed in sweet vinegar and green onions, and you’re transported to a family barbecue.
The restaurant is named for the chef’s paternal grandfather, who ran a Swiss public house years ago. And although Ross-Leutwyler never visited that pub and holds none of the family recipes, his thoughtful, unadorned preparations revere ingredients in a refreshing, old-fashioned way, treating flavors with kindness and sensitivity, as pieces to be arranged rather than broken down and reassembled.
In a rosy, slow-roasted Chioggia beet salad ($9), dollops of foamy feta play with the roots’ earthen sugar; fennel tastes of dappled sunlight in a dish as grounded and delicate as the autumn forest floor. The plate could adapt to life at Vinegar Hill House, but it’s perfectly at home in Fritzl’s clean, bare-walled salon.
If this all sounds somewhat predictable—Fritzl’s happily follows the New Brooklyn culinary playbook, down to the house-brined pickles—Ross-Leutwyler isn’t trying to push taste to its molecular limit: “The idea is to make things accessible, make dishes that people are intuitively familiar with; change people’s perceptions through the quality of the food rather than the food itself,” the chef says.
The menu changes often, but its core is constant:”You can always come here and get a burger, a chicken sandwich; that Caesar will be there,” Ross-Leutwyler says. And that’s great news, because it’s a damn fine Caesar ($7). Crisp romaine and buttery croutons rest beneath a blanket of woolly pecorino; the dressing has enough anchovy to honor the classic without smacking you with fish.
And you may have heard about the burger ($8.50). Fritzl’s coarse-ground, cheek-and-chuck patty has racked up a slew of accolades; it oozes fatty juices and is seasoned just enough to enhance the meat without making a statement. And that, in an age when many chefs try to brand every dish that flees the kitchen, is a virtue.
Compared to these straightforward gems, more elaborate dishes can feel unwieldy. The Baja shrimp cocktail ($8)—a tostada heaped with shrimp, avocado, and pineapple, bathed in tomato-chile sauce, doused with Spanish crema, then sprinkled with sesame seeds—falls short of the promise of its ingredients. A radicchio salad ($9), its crimson leaves tossed in sherry vinaigrette with candied walnuts and blue cheese, tastes like wearing stilettos when the occasion calls for flats.
Fritzl’s patio, framed by scraggly hedges and beat-up fencing, is an ideal mise-en-scène for a Bushwick brunch. Try a kale and feta scramble ($11), the eggs delightfully runny and studded with silky squares of cheese and bitter bits of green. Soft florets of fried cauliflower ($7) encased in bubbly, crisp beer-batter and with sweet chili sauce for dipping, are another excellent daytime choice.
If it all feels a little quaint, or the service drifts toward distracted, we’ll gladly while away a few extra minutes over a Narragansett tall boy ($4) or a slice of banana cream pie ($5.50, from Pies ‘N’ Thighs in Williamsburg). We’ll watch as our waiter sweeps leaves from the patio instead of clearing our plates, our bodies humming with the romance of the Spanish-language ballads wafting from a nearby window, and enjoy the unpolished sheen of a golden afternoon on Irving Avenue.